Will the Belzer Rabbi's education reform in Israel have an effect on schools in New York?

“This is all being done for financial greed,” a NY Satmar publication wrote

Belz headquarters in Jerusalem. Credit: ronib1979. Inset: Belz Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach. Credit: Tisho

Sep 11, 2023 8:45 AM


Two New York-based newspapers associated with the Satmar Hasidic sect published articles decrying a decision by Belz Hasidic leaders in Israel to improve secular education in the Belz schools.

The salvos come amid news reports that two Israeli Belz schools will embrace a core studies curriculum, which includes English, Hebrew, and math, in a program that is expected to eventually expand to all Belz schools. In doing so, according to Arutz Sheva, Belz will make the schools eligible to be fully funded by the government. To achieve this expansion, the Belz schools will reportedly join Bnei Yosef, an Israeli school system run by the Shas political party, which mostly represents Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim.

“Each year, these [Belz] schools slide deeper and deeper into the hands of wicked Zionists; woe to that shame and disgrace,” reads the Aug. 31 issue of Heimshtut, a Yiddish-language Kiryas Joel newspaper associated with Satmar’s Aaronite faction. 

A publication affiliated with the Zalmanite faction of the Satmar community also editorialized against the move by Belz. “Unprecedented decline of the Belz sect by handing over the keys of their schools to Zionist institutions,” read a headline in the Aug. 25 issue of the weekly Yiddish-language newspaper Kiryas Joel Weekly.

Satmar leaders are traditionally anti-Zionist, believing that for Jewish people to collectively move to Israel before the coming of the Messiah violates God’s plan. As a result of these views, Satmar Hasidim have sometimes declined support from the Israeli government; on a 2016 trip to Israel, Satmar rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum made a donation to Haredi institutions that refuse government funding. 

“This is all being done for financial greed,” the Heimshtut article said.

The disagreements between Belz and Satmar on how to relate to Israel goes back decades and has led to violence in the past. In the 1980s, members of the two sects brawled in the streets of Brooklyn and Israel after the Belzer rebbe made a speech in which he expressed support for accepting funding from the Israeli government and participating in its elections.

Since then, the Belzer rebbe has worked toward reconciliation with Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, who leads a Satmar faction and is his brother-in-law. Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, who leads another Satmar faction, has not yet reconciled with the rebbe.

The Belzer rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has long been known for more moderate stances than some other Hasidic leaders.

This specific controversy over school curricula and funding came up last year, when Rokeach approved the inclusion of secular education in Belz elementary schools so that they could qualify for more government funding – a decision that drew harsh criticism from Zalman Leib Teitelbaum. Belz did not move forward with the change at that time, after then-candidate Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to increase funding for Haredi schools, regardless of their curricula.

In 2005, Rokeach made waves when he said in a speech that men who don’t excel in religious studies should leave their rabbinical school and learn a trade instead, so that they can earn a living. In recent months, he also led Belz to implement sexual abuse awareness for boys and started a program to help people who’ve left the Hasidic lifestyle maintain their family ties.

Though he lives in Israel, Rokeach also leads the large Belz community in the U.S. According to data from the New York State Education Department, there are six Belz schools in Brooklyn, and there are more in Monsey as well as in Lakewood, New Jersey. In June, the New York City Department of Education completed a years-long investigation in which it found that a Belz school in Boro Park was failing to provide adequate secular education, along with 17 other Haredi schools.

Rabbi Menachem Bombach, the founder and head of Israel’s Netzach Haredi educational network, which offers both religious and secular studies, predicted that Rokeach’s decision would affect the rest of the Haredi world as well.

"You don't understand how excited I am about this move,” Bombach said in Hebrew. “It's a very dramatic step in the history of the Hasidic community in Israel, a crazy change.”

Shtetl reached out to 15 Haredi leaders in New York and New Jersey to get their reactions to Belz’s decision. Two leaders said they don’t think the Belz change will have much influence on other communities.

“I don't believe that anything Belz does has any effect on Chabad-Lubavitch,” said Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, the director of the education office for Chabad-Lubavitch’s Chinuch office, which handles the movement’s internal education and external outreach efforts.

Ezra Friedlander, a lobbyist who represents many Haredi organizations at a state and federal level, insisted that the news in Israel would have no effect on New York, because the U.S. and Israel are “apples and oranges.”

“The Belzer rebbe’s a trailblazer, but don’t conflate the two [countries], because it’s a totally different dynamic,” Friedlander said.

Read more in Shtetl:

Report: in a first for Israeli Haredim, Belz implements sexual abuse awareness for boys.