The Israeli government onslaught on Torah institutions has taken an alarming turn as Bais Yaakov high schools received sudden notification of a massive cut in their budgets that will be enacted retroactively, plunging the system into unprecedented crisis.
The Bais Yaakov principals convened an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss a letter received from the Education Ministry — without official prior warning — informing them of drastic budget cuts. Moreover, the ministry is demanding the return of millions of shekels in funding that they had already received (and spent) during the school year that just finished.
“We are in total shock,” Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, General Director of Merkaz Bais Yaakov, which operates ten high schools in eight cities, told Hamodia on Tuesday.
When asked if the decision could be changed, and if not, what they would do, he said he did not know.
“We need rachmei Shamayim,” he said, adding that consultation with charedi MKs so far have provided no answers. “They told us there is nothing they can do,” he said.
The principals said in a statement that the cancellation of funding — which in itself is of questionable legality — threatens the very existence of the Bais Yaakov network.
Regarding the issue of the schools returning money already received from the government, there was no immediate explanation for the basis of the demand. Tens of millions of dollars are involved.
The letter from the Education Ministry received on Monday stated that per-student funding for Judaic Studies in the seminars would be reduced henceforth by fully two-thirds, and that millions of shekels in funding dating back to September 2012 would have to be returned.
This, despite the fact that the school year has already ended and teachers were paid. If the decision stands, many teachers will be laid off.
The fiscal bind was compounded by the fact that after May 31, schools cannot legally fire teachers who have already been hired for the coming term.
Rabbi Binyamin Scharansky, director of Bais Yaakov seminaries in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv, noted that the letter he received from the Education Ministry did not expressly require return of funds, but that the budget cut would be effective from September 2012.
“The parents of our students are not wealthy, they are mostly avreichim,” he said. “Where will they get the money to make up the difference? As it is, parents come to me every day in tears over the financial pressures. And now this.”
“We had an emergency meeting, and I was asked, where can we cut back; economize? Religious studies? Teacher training programs? I had no answer for them,” adding that government money was flowing unimpeded to other, non-chareidi educational institutions.
The only thing that could save the situation, Rabbi Scharansky said, “would be an outcry from the students and families that will reach the ears of Prime Minister Netanyahu, of Finance Minister Lapid, and to appeal to our members of Knesset to do everything they can to help.”
The decision comes in addition to the government’s cancellation of the Perach program, which provides teachers in training with valuable tutoring experience.
Perach was ordered to shut down operations on June 7, with no consideration for those who had already worked and not yet been paid.
Furthermore, the makeup of the Netanyahu government coalition appears to directly affect funding for Bais Yaakov. The budget for seminaries had consisted of 45 percent from the basic budget, and another 45 percent would be given from “coalition money,” an allotted amount that was given to the United Torah Judaism party for distribution at its discretion. However, with UTJ out of the government, that money will not be forthcoming.
Loans for seminary students have likewise been revoked. Until now, a seminary student who completed her teacher training was eligible for an educational assistance loan. While such loans will no longer be available to Bais Yaakov students, they will continue to be available to institutions categorized as “academic.”
Along with Rabbi Scharansky and Rabbi Lieberman, Monday’s emergency meeting included: Union of Seminaries Chairman Rabbi Zev Wolf; representative of the Gur seminaries Rabbi Chanoch Zeibart; director of the Vizhnitz Seminaries, Rabbi Yaakov Waltzer; Rabbi Yechiel Mendelson, director of Darkei Rachel, Yerushalayim; director of Bais Malka, Belz, Rabbi Avraham Feiner; Bais Yaakov Petach Tikvah director, Rabbi Azaria Hildesheimer; and Rabbi Yitzchak Austerlitz, Secretary, Union of Seminaries.
The Bais Yaakov heads met with Education Ministry director general Mrs. Dalit Stauber on the matter, but she said she was unable to help them, and that it’s all in the hands of the politicians.
Said Rabbi Wolf: “For 18 years, we have been sustained by the coalition budget of 40 million shekels. We ask you to set the budget for 2014, and we ask for assistance in finishing this school year, so that we will not be forced to close schools and lay off teachers.”
Stauber replied: “The political and economic situation has changed this year, and we have no source for another 40 million shekels. I can only implement policies and budgets that exist, according to the criteria.”
The Bais Yaakov principals also met with MKs from United Torah Judaism, who have had some success in removing budgetary clauses that would have harmed the schools.
Among other things, they acted to cancel a limit on the number of Bais Yaakov high school students on teacher training track to 2,500 in the whole country. Similarly, they scuttled a provision which would have limited funding only to those who study four full years.
The Bais Yaakov principals sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu requesting to meet with him regarding the crisis.