Your intrepid reporter is interviewing Shmuel Shattach in the Hebrew University cafeteria when he gets a WhatsApp that MK Bezalel Smotrich, chair of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, is suing his organization for libel. There’s no basis to the claim, says Shmuel. But it’s all in a day’s work for the director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda (NTA.) 

Shmuel has two professional roles: running the organization and – and this is where his soul is, he says – working to prevent the Haredization of the religious school system in Israel. In a religious culture in which the trend is toward Haredization, this is no easy task. 

“If you want to effect change,” say Shmuel, “you have to start in the schools.” 

He shows me a slide with numbers: In 2000, 60% of religious schools were mixed gender. In 2011, the number dropped to 45%. Since then the number has held steady, he says, because of the work of NTA. 

Gender segregated schools lead to many ills, says Shmuel, including the fact, demonstrated by studies, that children are less calm in segregated classes. 

“You look at Bezalel Smotrich and ask, why is he so narrow?” Shmuel asks. “Why doesn’t he see others? This is why. He was educated in all-boys schools. He wasn’t exposed to others.” 

Shmuel believes that the West Bank hilltop youth is a psychological phenomenon resulting from gender segregated schools in which there was no counselor, no art, literature, drama or music classes. 

“The child might have ADD, misbehaves, is expelled repeatedly and there is no school psychologist or counselor to help,” he says. NTA is currently working to demonstrate this relationship through research.  

“Twenty years ago, religious Zionism was moderate; today it is extremist,” says Shmuel. “This doesn’t happen in one day – and it’s because of this (Haredization) process. When you don’t study with girls, your perception of them is of something other, different…as sexual objects…Then it’s hard for that same boy to be in the army with girls. He won’t go to a university but to a college with separate classes. To prevent this process, we focus on all aspects of the religious education system.”

Israel’s official school system is divided by sector: There are Arab and Jewish schools and, within the Jewish schools, there are three streams: ultra-Orthodox or Haredi schools, religious Zionist schools, and secular schools.

Shmuel and his team, backed by hundreds of volunteer activists, closely monitor textbooks and other materials children in the religious Zionist education system receive. They also meet with parents, Ministry of Education officials, religious Zionist school principals, publishers and the media. Their advocacy campaigns have led to significant changes. 

Shmuel shows me the cover of a book his son received in elementary school that shows the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai – with women on one side and men on the other. And a fifth grade math book whose cover picture of Einstein was banned because Einstein was secular. NTA got the Ministry of Education to reinstate the photo for national religious schools.  

In fact, after countless meetings with the Ministry of Education, parents, and a media blitz in 2015, NTA got the Ministry to cut by a third the number of “Haredi” books on lists of textbooks available to religious Zionist schools.

“It’s an important change,” says Shmuel. “I see it reflected in the textbooks my children receive. My older son had a lot of Haredi textbooks whereas my younger ones have more books by liberal publishers, which are far superior.”

Shmuel can point to a long list of successes: The school calendar distributed to religious Zionist school pupils did not mark the day PM Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. “We made a lot of noise, and the following year it was put back in,” he says. 

NTA also got the cover illustration of a Mishna book changed from all male to mixed gender; the cover of the Talmud tractate, Kiddushin, showing a groom standing with two rabbis to one that includes the missing bride.  Another textbook with an illustration of a farmer and his wife, showing the farmer’s face but only his wife’s back, was changed so children see both their faces.  

“We used to check every book,” says Shmuel. “Now we get warnings from parents and we act.”

NTA’s latest success came after work with parents in Rosh Ha’ayin, where the municipality demanded that a new religious school have separate classes for boys and girls. NTA’s lawyer sent a letter to the municipality reminding them that this is illegal. Ninety percent of the parents want the school to be coed. Between the time of our interview and the publication of this story, the parents, with NTA’s help won this fight and the school will be mixed gender. 

“This decision will strengthen the ability to provide religious education in a complex world,” Shmuel told the Ynet news site. 

Shmuel is clearly the go-to guy for issues of religion, state and education. As we speak, he gets a message from a journalist at a leading daily newspaper asking for his comment on the new education minister’s move to remove a moderate, high official in the Ministry. 

Shmuel and NTA also work against the various Ministry of Education regulations that enable National Haredi schools to receive more funds. An example: In Holon, there was one National Haredi school and one religious Zionist school and the former had a much higher enrollment. When NTA checked to find out why, they discovered the Haredi school received government funds for transporting pupils, which made a huge difference to the parents. 

“We fixed that,” says Shmuel “and it fixed the situation there.”

NTA brought these ‘games’ to the attention of the State Comptroller in 2012 and things have changed since then, says Shmuel. “But we constantly have to go over the budget data to find the new games.”

There are forces at work to delegitimize NTA by showing its relationship with NIF and claiming, “they are not one of us.”

“This is another challenge,” says Shmuel. “To show that we are part of the religious community – which we are!

“Once at the Shabbat table one of my kids said, ‘Aba, my friends say you do bad things.’ That really got to me. ..It would be easier to try to fix things in Rwanda. People accuse me of working against my community, but I’m trying to fix my community, my people.”

NTA has many allies including people within the system who see a problem but need someone from the outside to address it. Liberal Orthodox organizations like Kolech, the religious Kibbutz movement and liberal Orthodox rabbis’ organizations are “mishpocha” says Shmuel. Surprising allies include Haredi rabbis who contact NTA about corruption. 

“People who are your adversaries on three issues, can become your ally on a fourth,” Shmuel says. He gives the example of MK Yehuda Glick, who campaigns for increasing Jewish access to the Temple Mount. “We’ve worked together on a number of issues.” 

“In the media it looks like we’re against Haredim, but we’re not. It’s not black and white,” says Shmuel “There are good people everywhere.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

Read Part One of Shmuel’s profile