The lockdown imposed in response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel closed Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools and shuttered a range of community frameworks that provide a daily routine for hundreds of thousands of Haredi youth. This unprecedented situation presented Haredi society with some highly unique challenges.
In normal times, the Haredi education system has long school days and short vacations. During vacations, the school system provides entertainment and leisure activities that are tailored to the needs and character of the Haredi community. In addition, community life provides young people in the Haredi community with a holistic social experience that includes daily synagogue prayers, study groups, weddings, and other celebrations.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down all these institutions and activities, created difficulties for all socioeconomic strata in Haredi society. Even “normative” families found themselves facing, for the first time, emotional and behavioral difficulties in their children, due to severe boredom and isolation. As a result, youth who would not usually be considered “at-risk” could now be seen as members of an at-risk group.
During this period, at-risk families who had already experienced major challenges and difficulties before the pandemic found themselves exposed to very strong risk factors, and experienced a great sense of helplessness. Students who struggled with academic content became effectively incapacitated in the absence of any stable study framework, and young people who struggled to maintain a daily routine lost their bearings completely due to their lack of structure. These phenomena were exacerbated during the lockdown by the inability to maintain contact with friends, schools, and other community institutions via technological means that are available in other communities, as computers, smartphones, and internet access are not generally available to Haredi youth.
In order to be able to maintain contact with their students during the lockdown, schools in the Haredi sector needed to find alternative methods. They set up phone lines that made it possible for students to listen to lessons in real time or to listen to pre-recorded lessons. But the fact that Haredi families are much larger than the average family in Israel made this challenging. Each family usually has just one landline, not every child has a mobile phone, and families often live in small, cramped apartments in which it is difficult for children to find a suitable place for listening to lessons.
Beitar Illit, one of the largest Haredi cities in Israel and the city with the largest proportion of young people, identified the suffering and the huge risk presented by this situation, and sought solutions. The municipality contacted the Netzach school network, a Haredi school network that provides a traditional religious education alongside a “core curriculum” of secular subjects. The network provides both elementary and secondary education, and operates one school in Beitar Illit. With the help of the Mandel Foundation, the Netzach network was able to create special responses to the needs of both normative and at-risk youth in the city.
For normative youth – students aged 14–17 who attended regular yeshiva and seminary settings – a special system was created to provide content-based activities. Three dedicated phone lines for multiple users, each marketed with its own name, were set up in order to serve young people from the three sectors of Haredi Jews in the city: Sephardic, Hasidic, and those associated with the Lithuanian stream. The project engaged thousands of young people in specially adapted activities and studies during a period when no other educational or social options were available to them. A total of 56,400 calls took place as part of the project, each providing content and activities to the youth. In addition, tens of raffles of small prizes were conducted as part of the project, which increased the engagement of the young people of the community.
For at-risk youth, a major project was set up to provide academic and emotional support to children and youth who are followed by truant officers in the Beitar Illit municipality. These children are academically behind and are at high risk for dropping out of school. In many cases, they come from troubled homes or their parents have divorced or died. The project was hugely successful in keeping these young people from slipping into delinquency and living on the streets.
The project provided technological, organizational, and pedagogical tools for maintaining academic and educational relationships between young people and their mentors. It helped the youth continue to develop during the challenging period, while keeping them within the framework of the community and encouraging them to remain in school.
As part of this project, special educational content was created to meet the demands of this highly difficult period. The Netzach network provided training and guidance for the mentors in the project, as well as pedagogical and technological supervision. Approximately 60 mentors participated in the project, serving 280 students from the different population groups in the city. The project’s activities were monitored in coordination with the schools, the truant officers, the mentors, and the students’ families. All support activities were carried out using laptops that were provided to the mentors and students, ensuring continued activity and contact during lockdowns.
In the best of times, it is difficult to set up emergency teams and start projects from scratch in such a short period; all the more so during a major national and in fact worldwide crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. With support and guidance from Netzach, the municipality’s teams worked hard to provide the necessary responses and to implement the project successfully and professionally.
The fruits of this project are evident on the ground. The organizers have heard moving stories about students who were able to succeed on exams and maintain some kind of routine, thanks to the tools that were made available by the project. Tens of young people, both boys and girls, received a lifeline that enabled them to survive the stormy waters of their lives, which during the pandemic became a tempest. The success has been so great that it has created a sense within the Haredi community of Beitar Illit that during future emergencies, if schools are not able to provide their students with the necessary framework, there will be a support system on which they can rely.