Ethiopian Integration in Petach Tikva Religious Schools

Petach Tikva has always been in the forefront of the debate over exclusivity and inclusion in the state religious school system.

Introduction: A Short History of Integration and Private Schools in Petach Tikva

Petach Tikva has both affluent and poor neighborhoods. There has long been bad feeling when integration in elementary school has been “forced.” The resentment increased with the establishment of private schools that drew affluent children from the public religious schools and left a higher percentage of weaker and poorer students in the public system.

This resentment existed even when the socioeconomic, cultural, religious and educational differences between the  two groups being integrated—Ashkenazim and Yemenites, for the most part—were not nearly as great as the differences now seen between the Ethiopian immigrants and the native population. These battles often made the papers, including twice when two of my older children started first grade as my youngest child will (might) tomorrow. The battles are still fresh in our minds, and their aftermath affects private relationships, the social fabric of the religious community and the city itself, and every child in religious schools today.

The private schools receive about 70% of their funding from the educational ministry, which allocates a set amount per student no matter what school they attend, and from the municipality. All of them study rent-free on public land, and one of them received a state-of-the-art building. True, children in that school learned in leaky caravans for many years, but potential parents only see the new building that is much more attractive than my children’s adequate state-religious school.

The Ethiopian Immigrants and the Religious Issue

The rabbinate’s requirements for conversion of the Ethiopian immigrant children includes their enrollment in a religious school. Large numbers of immigrants have moved in recent years to Petach Tikva, including 290 children who arrived over the summer and 80-120 expected after the fall holidays. These children were assigned to both state religious and private schools, but the private schools have refused to accept them.

Concerns of the State Religious Schools

There are two main reasons why the religious public schools in Petach Tikva insist that the exclusive, private schools accept a proportionate number of Ethiopian students:

  • The private schools serve as unfair competition to the religious school system. Private schools have already led to the demise or near-demise of several state religious schools. Obligating the state religious schools to take large groups of weaker students puts the schools at even more of a disadvantage when parents are considering their options.
  • If parents want to separate themselves from the community and only learn with their own kind, they should pay the real price for this privilege. Public funds should not go toward schools whose main interest is not in a particular type of education, but in keeping some children out.

Ronit Tirosh’s View

Kadima’s Ronit Tirosh, the director of the education ministry, said on the radio that the concern of the public religious schools is that if large numbers of Ethiopians are absorbed into their system, parents with means will either migrate to private schools or leave to another school district. This has happened in at least one Petach Tikva school and in Or Yehuda, Netanya and elsewhere. If  the Ethiopians become the majority the whole point of their integration, to absorb them into mainstream Israeli society, is negated.

There are only five state religious schools in Petach Tikva and three private ones. Tirosh advocates a solution that places the children in the larger, non-religious state school system and distributes new immigrants in smaller groups among more municipalities so as not to overwhelm any one system.

Concerns of the Private Schools

The private schools, for their part, maintain that their concern is pedagogical and not racial. The higher religious and (supposedly) higher academic level means that the immigrants will not fit in. But due to their lack of Hebrew and limited knowledge of Judaism they are likely to have a difficult time in any school, especially a religious one. The differences between the curriculum of the public and private schools is exaggerated. In other words, they won’t fit in to the state religious schools any more than into the private ones.

The private schools insist that the children will be better off in separate classes until they can catch up. This may or may not be true, but I doubt that the interest of the Ethiopian children is behind this assertion.

The private schools also ask why the many haredi schools in the city have not been pressured to accept more students or threatened with closure, as the private schools have.

For the record, both private  school and public school parents benefit when there is competition between them. Parents often find that a particular school does not meet their needs, or the private school rejects their children even though the family is a good match. And in theory, competition can lead to better education.

Some of the solutions suggested by the private schools involve testing or interviewing new immigrants before assigning them to a school. The state religious schools have rejected these options because it would mean taking the stronger ones, whether on the basis of religious level, academic level, or behavior, and leaving the ones with problems for the state religious school to deal with. The original distribution by the city was according to last name.

Where It Stands Now

I’m off to my child’s meeting with the new first-grade teacher. As of now, no solution has been reached and all of the public schools in Petach Tikva, religious or not, are threatening to strike. At least two of the private schools have also suspended classes during the crisis. Let’s hope this can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and that all of the country’s children can start school as scheduled.


  1. I think you are being unfair to the private religious schools, if you are assuming that they are being discriminatory based on race.

    One, I heard that they are willing to take the Ethiopian students who are starting first grade and put them in to the regular classrooms. They object to putting the other kids, who are older, in the regular classrooms because they may be so far behind. I also read that as soon as these students have caught up they will be put into the regular classroom.

    Two, I have personal experience with the Noam school in Petach Tikvah. Before our yishuv had its own school, most parents sent to another yishuv, where the school was “open classroom”. We hated this idea, and looked for a private school and found Noam. Not only did my son get an excellent education, but when he was found to be far and above the level in English for his grade, the school provided a teacher just for him (there were no other native English speakers in his class). In addition, the biggest advantage for a private school is the ability to get rid of bad teachers. My oldest had a bad teacher one year, and the next year the teacher was not employed again. In contrast, my third son had a terrible teacher in the local yishuv school (mamlachti dati). What did the principal do? He took a regular classroom away from this teacher, and made her the teacher for math. Guess what? My kid had this same terrible teacher for the next two years for math, which he grew to hate.

    • mominisrael says

      I’m not saying it’s because of race. I’m saying that the reason they are giving, about the higher religious and educational level compared to that of the Ethiopians, can apply to the mamadim toraniim as well.
      I’m glad you had a good experience in Noam, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the current situation.

  2. I’m not sure why the older children are not going to be in separate classes in the regular mamadim as well. If a group of children can’t read Hebrew and have no experience doing basic math, how are they supposed to keep up with third through sixth grade classrooms anywhere, private or public school? How do the immigrant children or the rest of the class benefit from this setup? One teacher cannot do remedial and regular work simultaneously. So what happens? The class is constantly disrupted, the immigrant children never really catch up, the rest of the children have a harder time learning, but thank God, the politicians get to look good on TV and on the radio. It has nothing to do with higher or lower educational level. It has to do with refusing to play the political game that everyone else wants to play.

    The education ministry and Shimon Peres get to look like tough freedom fighters by not “compromising”. But who really wins by “standing firm”? I don’t think it’s the children, that’s for sure.

  3. 1. I think the question of why the Haredi and Shas schools in Petach Tikva and elsewhere do not accept these pupils is definitely a valid issue. They also get quite a lot of money from the state, their parents pay less than the other private schools, there is no reason why they should not accepts them too.

    2. Although people may want integration, if children are very new in Israel, they may need an ulpan class.

    3. As a contra, at the time of the first aliya from Ethiopia I learnt in a private ulpana in kfar saba. This school did accept class loads of Ethiopian children, but they were in their own class at first. For years this school has been accepting groups of Ethiopian girls.

    4. I understand that the government is also asking for preferential treamtment. My nephew wanted to move to one of the private schools in PT. He had to have an interview and do tests. They made them wait a long time to get an answer. ALL pupils for these schools have to have interviews and also sometimes do tests. One of the schools even requests privately paid for psychologial assesments before starting grade one.

    Now the schools are being requested to accept pupils without any of these tests. However, a yemenite, or morocan pupil who may want to go to one of these schools will not be able to be accepted without the tests and interviews and might not get in, while the Ethiopian will!

    As it is the situaion in Petach Tikva with the religious schools is complex. I bet the parents in places with a similar situation such as Raanana or Jerusalem are happy they do not have to cope with this situation

  4. mominisrael says

    Keren and Abbi,
    The children do not sit in a regular classroom the whole day. The ones who need it get help with reading and other subjects. But the fastest way for children to learn Hebrew is to be in a regular class with a majority of native speakers.
    Keren, are you saying that Moroccan and Yemenite children have a disadvantage in getting into the private schools, and if so, why should that be?

  5. I agree that the fastest way to learn Hebrew is by being with native speakers. Which is why they don’t have a problem taking kita aleph children into the regular class. Unfortunatley, it’s not just a matter of learning Hebrew, as it is with North American olim. It’s also catching up on the basics of Math, Torah, even how to sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher.

    In any case, the pshara was that they will be in separate classes and slowly mainstreamed throughout the year, which sounds suspiciously like being in the regular class and getting help with math, reading and Torah. Yes, it’s a different gisha and not as politically correct as what M’HCh wants. However, it’s a valid pedagogical approach and will probably be better for everyone in the long run.

    I agree with WBM, I think you’re being a little unfair to the private schools and it sounds like you might have a personal bias towards them. They are willing to take these children on terms that are pedagogically sound. It’s the gov’t that isn’t (or wasn’t? what happened in the end?) agreeing.

    As for higher or lower education level, i can say from my very limited experience in this arena that when we went to the parent meeting for the local mamad, the principal forgot to talk about Torah study in the first grade. When I asked afterwards how it works, she was said “Oh, I the teacher makes up her own program”. Noam, where my daughter started today, teaches the Barkai method and by third grade the children know how to look up anything they want in the Tanach. So, at least here in Ranaana, I think there is a difference in levels between the mamadim and the private schools (the local mamad is not a mamad torani.)

  6. Abbi, I did not try to hide my bias, although I presented both sides. Yes, people are making political hay. I still feel there is discrimination, whether or not it is strictly racial doesn’t matter. The schools accept public money and should share in the absorption. What gives them the right to refuse?
    I believe that the difference in level is not enough of a reason. There are many secular subjects too where perhaps the level is lower in the private schools.Certainly at least one of them makes no claim to be superior in secular subjects and offers one hour a week of science until 4th or 5th grade, no geography, less English and math, etc.

  7. But they are willing to share in the absorption- just on their own terms, which I think is their right as semi private schools.

  8. The schools accept public money and should share in the absorption. What gives them the right to refuse?
    I think (from my biased and distant point of view) that your remark makes sense. If you accept public money, you need to abide by the rules. Only completely private schools should be allowed to have their own standards.

  9. Abbi – either funding should be cut completely from the private schools or they should accept the Ethiopians on the best terms for the children.
    I can tell you from personal experience with our school in Kfar Adumim. There is an absorption center about 45 minutes away in Mivaseret. The municipality of Mivaseret will not have the children study in their public schools, so they are bussed all over. We accepted a class of ~25 children of new Ethiopian immigrants of all ages. At first they had a special class to learn Hebrew and other things while they were slowly integrated into the regular classrooms. It has been a tremendous experience for everyone and only enhanced the “regular” students experience at our school.
    The schools in PT should be ashamed of themselved. Mostly, because as Jews we should be opening and accepting of new immigrants. The “chinuch” they are giving their children is terrible.
    MIL was not harsh enuf on the schools if anything.

  10. Uh Ariela, what you described – special class and slowly integrated into regular classrooms sounds like exactly what the PT schools accepted. So I’m not sure why they should be ashamed of themselves. It sounds like you didn’t read the articles carefully.

    M’hchinuch was refusing any special classes. At all. I don’t see how that benefits anyone.

    I worked in Evelina in J-m where the Ethiopian olim went straight into regular classrooms. It was very very difficult for everyone.

  11. this reminds me of the private schools in south africa, which during apartheid accepted all races, unlike the government schools. This was allowed because these schools were completely private and received no money from the government. Is it really a private school if it accepts government money?

    I think they should accept these kids, and have a 1 year mechina like system for them, where they learn hebrew, torah and whatever else is needed to get them up to speed. they should go into this if needed, no matter what age they arrive at the school.

  12. Abbi, the PT schools originally only wanted to accept the olim who met their standards. A special class is a comprimise. I was referring to their original position, which I find horrifying.

  13. mominisrael says

    The private schools only accepted the Ethiopians after the education minister signed the order that would withhold their funding.

  14. I was told today by a co-worker from Petach Tikva who says his kids are in one of the schools involved that the reason they dnt accept the Ethiopian kids is because:
    a) the kids are less religious than the standards of the school and
    b) the kids educational level is lower.
    He thought it was justified because the school is not the right place for these kids considering the religious and educational level.

  15. Our Mamad school has been absorbing ethiopian immigrants from the merkaz klita in Tzfat for at least the last 5 years – again because the local schools there would not accept them (or all of them) so they were bussed the 40+ minutes to our school which agreed. (Our school already has local pupils of ethiopian background but they are, today, all tsabarin or of families moved in after merkaz klita stages).

    As was mentioned above, the students are in one of 2 olim classes to start for hebrew/math/etc and with the regular classes after a few months for sports, art, etc – within a year or so, the kids are in the regular classes (my older son was quite friendly with one of the 2 boys who had joined his class – 2 out of 23 kids, for what its worth).

    FWIW, the chinukh atzmai school in town, which heavily recruits russian immigigrants for its non-haredi classes (yes, they have those too for the kids not of the kollel), refuses to accept kids of ethiopian descent.

    In some ways the immigrant kids are isolated and its very bad, IMO – but its also a problem related to the fact they aren’t local so are bussed in from 45 minutes away, aren’t part of the afterschool activities (after all, they aren’t local to come back for them 2hrs after school ends), aren’t able to play with their friends after school, etc – more so than the initial separate classes. There was an oleh class for bnei menashe kids a couple of years ago yet those kid were far more integrated because htey were int he merkaz klita in town so were in the community, playing with the other kids in the park, etc.

    Of course in our case we are already a school that is ‘shunned’ by the more elitist elements because the school accepts all who want to register and that includes kids from non-shomrei shabbat homes, etc. For what its worth, I, at least, wanted such a school for my kids – but thats also why we chose to live in an integrated community (both religiously and socio-economically).


  16. It seems that the private schools cannot win, and there are DEFINITELY special interests at work who are determined to bring down the private schools system in Petach Tikva. If you want me to name names I invite you to email me. Mom in Israel has my email address.

    Last year for example Lamerchav school was in the headlines (again) for allegedly apartheid behaviour towards some Ethiopian kids. What was the dreadful thing they did? The children could not keep up in class so they opened a remedial class for them. Horror of horrors! Apartheid! Racism! Discrimination! But when the kids could not keep up in regular class it was obviously a result of… you guessed it!.. apartheid, racism, discrimination.

    I have heard of another case of an Ethiopian child who is having to repeat the year in his private school because he did not have a remedial class and has not managed to keep up.

    As for the government promising teachers’ aides, remedial in-class teaching – yeah, right. Pigs are flying outside my window now too.

    Please someone tell me why the government is against any sort of special class for these children when it is so obvi8ous that they are way below the level of the regular classes in ALL schools. I smell me some politics of the nastiest kind.

  17. For the life of my I cannot understand all of you who seem to sympathize with the private schools. The purpose of school is ????? or moral education. I cannot think of better chinuch than taking in the Ethiopian students. BTW I heard an interview today on the radio with an Ethipian mother of a child who was born in Israel. The private school would not accept him without a certificate that he converted to Judaism.
    Abbi – did they ask your children for a certificate of conversion at your private school?

  18. Very interesting, thank you.

  19. Ariela- Ethiopian conversion upon aliya is a whole separate issue, and since my daughter was born here and I was asked for my parents’ ketuba and a letter from my shul rabbi certifying that I was indeed Jewish when I made aliyah, no they didn’t ask for a conversion certificate since she never converted.

    Once again, the schools never refused to take these kids. They refused to take the older children directly into the regular classes. They were always willing to take the first graders in with the regular classes. As a former teacher and having worked with these children directly, there are and were valid educational reasons for this and if it was to be done correctly, would have benefited all the children in the school.

    Sorry, Annie put it very succinctly. Who benefits from immigrant children with no experience in school being thrown into a class learning fractions, chumash with Rashi and chapter books?

    This is solely about attacking private schools. This has nothing to do with educating children, morally or otherwise.

  20. The articles i’ve read so far on this issue talk about how the schools were willing to accept the kids into klita classes from the beginning, but I could be mistaken.

  21. I wasn’t asked for any certificate or proof of Judaism when I made aliyah.
    Many Ethiopian children have been successfully integrated when placed in age-appropriate classes and pulled out for extra help. This happened in Gedera, which has a 20% Ethiopian population.
    Annie is 100% correct that people who don’t like the private schools are taking advantage of the situation to “punish” them. That doesn’t mean the private schools are right.
    Private schools accept public money yet reserve the right to accept, reject, and remove anyone they don’t want with no chance to appeal. Yes, they may present a higher educational and/or religious level, but the right to exclude is the main reason they exist. Why should public funds be allocated for this right, which ultimately weakens the state religious schools and therefore society at large?

  22. “Why should public funds be allocated for this right, which ultimately weakens the state religious schools and therefore society at large?”
    I could not agree with you more.

  23. This all sounds depressingly familiar…to Rehovot circa 1998/2000. Part of the problem which is not being addressed is the Rabbanut’s demand that children from the Eda must be placed in dati schools regardless of family interest. Just an additional pressure point on the process. The truth is that integrating a large number of Ethiopian kids into a single school is going to be a shock to the school. Maybe the best solution is one that ends up with a lower number of immigrant kids per school, which means making the state-funded private schools take some, and making the rabbanut end the requirement that they not go to non-dati publics. (I think many ethiopian families in fact would still want dati education, but probably not all of them). Lower number of kids per school has 2 potential negative side effects: harder for Ethiopian kids to maintain positive communal identity and 2) harder to have sufficient expert teaching help geared towards getting them up to speed. So lower, but not too low.


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