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Menachem Bombach
President and CEO of Netzach Educational Network
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The Haredi world must take civic responsibility

Unless we can shift the ultra-Orthodox priority of segregating from Israeli society, the community is at great risk of more disasters
Student Success in the National Citizenship Test
Netzach Student Success in the National Citizenship Test. (courtesy)

With Lag B’Omer on the horizon, and considering the tragic disaster that occurred on Mount Meron in 2021, the Haredi community needs to start taking responsibility and start teaching civic studies in its schools.

The State Commission of Inquiry into the tragic accident on Mount Meron in 2021 was published in March. They found many public officials responsible for the horrific disaster, which claimed the lives of 45 people. They cited “systemic and deep-rooted phenomena” including lack of governance of the organizations responsible for running the event, widespread unlawful and dangerous construction on the site, and an acceptance by the police that it would be impossible to restrict the crowds.

I believe that the Haredi community has much to learn from this incident, including the urgent need to foster a civic consciousness of mutual responsibility, respect for the law, and the importance of public safety.

Looking at the bigger picture, I think it also compels us to reexamine the issue of citizenship in Israeli society in general, and in the Haredi community in particular. It mirrors the current conversation about drafting Haredi youth into the Israel Defense Forces, and the need for every part of Israeli society to act for the welfare of the entire country. As the Haredi community continues to grow as a proportion of Israel’s population (14% now but 25% projected by 2030), the need to step up and pull our weight should also increase.

In a well-functioning state, every citizen must recognize their obligations to society and act for the public good. A good citizen does not only care about themselves and their immediate community but also about the wider society. They understand that laws and regulations are meant to protect us all and act accordingly, even when they conflict with their personal interests.

In this context, civic studies in schools are a vital tool for instilling values of social involvement and civic responsibility. They enable students to understand the relationship between the citizen and the state, to learn about their rights and duties, and develop a sense of partnership and belonging to the broader society.

However, in the Israeli Haredi education system, civic studies are often marginalized or entirely absent from the curriculum. The emphasis is on religious studies and preserving their traditional way of life, while encouraging complete segregation from general society. Haredi students do not acquire sufficient knowledge and tools for active participation in civic life.

This reality carries severe risks. It produces “partial citizens” who do not recognize their obligations to the state and society as a whole. Entire communities operate as closed enclaves, disregarding laws and regulations. The neglect of civic education leads to ignorance, indifference, and a lack of social solidarity. We saw this during the COVID-19 crisis, with a reluctance in many Haredi communities to follow lock-down rules and mistrust of the vaccinations provided by the government.

I am the first to acknowledge the hundreds of Haredi volunteers who have signed up to join the IDF since October, and the amazing outpouring of chesed” from the Haredi community towards families displaced by the war. In recent years, Zaka, Hatzolah, Yedidim, Yad Sara and similar “chesed” organizations have brought great credit to the community. However, the actions of these few hundred volunteers should not be viewed as a fig-leaf for those who choose not to obey the laws of the land.

The Meron disaster was a stark wake-up call, illustrating what can happen when large segments of society do not see themselves as bound by basic civic norms. It is a call to action for all of us, and particularly for the Haredi education system, to recognize the crucial importance of civic education.

The process of change will undoubtedly be lengthy and complex. The Haredi community sees segregation as a supreme value and will not easily relinquish it. However, completely omitting civic studies is not an option. We must find a way to integrate civic content into Haredi education, while respecting its unique values and character.

As a first step, the state must insist on mandatory basic civic studies in every educational institution that receives public funding. A minimal curriculum should be developed, focusing on core values such as the rule of law, mutual responsibility, and respect for others, while taking into account the sensitivities and values of the Haredi community.

In the longer term, an open and ongoing dialogue must be fostered between the Haredi community and wider Israeli society. As members of the Haredi community becomes more involved and integrated, their recognition of the importance of shared citizenship will grow. This is a national challenge of the highest order, requiring effort and mobilization from all parties.

The price of neglecting civic education in the Haredi sector could be unbearable. If we fail to educate a generation of aware and caring citizens, we can expect more disasters. The time has come for honest and courageous soul-searching and resolute action. The future of Israeli society depends on it.

About the Author
‏Menachem Bombach is an entrepreneur, an educator, Rosh Yeshiva of the boys' residential high school HaMidrasha HaHassidit in Beitar Illit, and the founder and CEO of the Netzach Yisrael Educational Network. ‏Rabbi Menachem Bombach, a Vizhnitz hasid, was born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox community in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. Following his yeshiva education at the Mir Yeshiva, he earned his undergraduate degree in Education and graduate degree in Public Policy from Hebrew University, where he also founded a preparatory program (Mechina) for Haredi students. Menachem was a fellow at Maoz and in the leadership program of Gesher and is a fellow and senior project leader at the Mandel Institute. ‏After the establishment of the Midrasha HaHassidit in 2017 and in light of its success, Menachem Bombach established Netzach Yisrael, a network of Haredi schools whose mission is to provide its students with an outstanding Haredi education, while in parallel, they work towards their bagrut (matriculation) certificate, a prerequisite for quality employment and higher education in Israel. The network’s academic program empowers graduates to create a strong, financially viable future for them, their future families, and the Israeli economy, while remaining strongly connected to their core values of Torah observance. ‏As of November 2021, the growing Netzach network is 15 schools strong. What started out with 14 students, currently serves 1900 students and fully expect to be serving 2500-3500 within two years, not including the over 26.000 registered at our Eshkolot Virtual School, an online platform which prepares Haredi students for their pre-academic studies. ‏In March 2022, the Netzach Educational Network was awarded the Annual Jerusalem Unity Prize in the category of education. The annual prize is awarded to initiatives in Israel and throughout the Jewish world that are instrumental in advancing mutual respect for others, and acknowledges accomplishments of those who work to advance the critical importance of Jewish unity, and inspire tolerance and mutual respect across the Jewish world –promoting acceptance of those who think, act or live differently.
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