Haneen Abukaf, 16, an Israeli-Arab high school student in the Bedouin village of Um Batin in southern Israel, loves studying history and dreams of becoming a doctor.
“I like learning about the great minds and ideas that changed history,” said Haneen, a computer science and biology major at ORT Um Batin High School, an industrial vocational high school founded in 2009. Standing in front of the blackboard in her homeroom, she wore a leather jacket on top of a floor-length black cloak and a black hijab.
“I don’t know what I would do without school,” she said, as several of her peers gathered around curiously to watch the interview. “It teaches me about the world outside my village.”
Abukaf is one of several thousand students who have benefitted from efforts to close the education gap between Israel’s sparsely populated geographic periphery and its heavily populated central region. In recent years, ORT Israel, formally called Israel Sci-Tech Schools (ISTS), has placed an increasing focus on developing schools in Israel’s northern and southern cities and villages. ISTS, funded in part by Israel municipalities and increasingly by donors abroad (Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the network’s American partner, was founded in 2007), is the largest non-state network of schools in Israel. It enrolls one of every 10 Israeli high school students in its growing network of over 200 schools countrywide.
Um Batin, a village of 45,000 people (two-thirds of whom are under 18), is one of two Bedouin communities in Israel’s Negev where ISTS has built schools in the past few years. (I visited there last month as part of a trip sponsored by the American Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools.) The other village, Al-Saied, a settlement of 5,000, was funded and developed by ISTS in 2010. Aside from English, students learn the vocational skills to become electricians, teachers, computer technicians, and engineers.
“It is incumbent on us to help our students get employed,” said Hsik Tomer, mayor of the regional council in Um Batin. “If employment increases, violence and estrangement will decrease.”
Up north, a vocational school for charedi students operates under the same philosophy. ORT Kfar Zeitim Vocational Yeshiva, which now has 130 students, caters to charedi students who are yeshiva-dropouts, giving them the skills to pursue a trade.
“The students who come to our school have failed somewhere else first,” said David Atmar, ISTS’ northern regional director. “We exist for students who don’t fit into the yeshiva mold.”
The school, he explained, only accepts students who have rebelled against the charedi yeshiva system; many of the students had confrontations with the police before their families agreed to send them to the vocational school.
“The families of our students view this school as the last resort,” said Atmar. “But we view the school as the students’ first real opportunity.”
According to a February 2014 study conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, children 18 and under account for 56 percent of the charedi population, and that number is growing. According to the study, only 6 percent of charedi men receive any form of higher education, making employment outside of the community exceedingly difficult.
Aviel HaLevi, 18, grew up in a small charedi community in Israel’s north. In his early teenage years, he grew frustrated with the rigid yeshiva system and started skipping class, hanging out in the streets instead. In 2010, his parents decided to send him to the vocational yeshiva in Kfar Zeitim, which had opened that year.
“Before I came here, I was lost,” said HaLevi, as he gave a tour of the computer lab where he conducted most of his studies. Today, he is training seriously to become a computer technician, one of the schools three vocational tracks (electricity and carpentry are the other two).
“My life needed a frame,” he said, explaining that before he came to the school he felt his life had “no goal.”
“I came here with open arms, to prepare for my future,” he said.
Though voluntary army service is rare among Israel’s charedi community, 90 percent of the school’s graduates chose to serve in the army. Explaining this trend, David Bloch, the school’s principal, said, “They choose army because we don’t push it on them. This is the path they choose for themselves.”
Bloch said graduates serve in charedi army units, so as to preserve the schools reputation and their own personal reputations.
“If they served in secular units, our reputation as a school would be ruined,” he said. “Charedi parents let their sons come here on condition that they will be accepted back into the charedi world when their time is done.”
In the Bedouin community, students face similar challenges of being accepted back into their communities after they leave school. Tomer spoke about the complex challenge of finding jobs for graduates when the village still lacks a permanent infrastructure — residents of the village don’t have sewage, water or electricity. Additionally, female graduates are not allowed to leave the village unaccompanied by a male, according to Bedouin tradition.
“My father tells me I have a very sharp mind,” said Abukaf, who is one of nine children. “But to be a doctor I would have to leave the village, and that’s not possible.”
Sojood Abukaf, Haneen’s cousin, is also studying biology and hopes to practice as a nurse. The only way she would be able to pursue this profession, she explained, is if a nursing school opened inside or very close to her village. Though she has a sister who works in the nearby city of Beersheba, she has a specific passion for building up her “own village.”
“This is my home, this is my community,” she said. “This is where I want to work.”
“Creating the infrastructure for jobs is the next step,” said Eman Alasad, 22, who is one of the few high school English teachers in Um Batin. Alasad, who teaches all four high school grades though she is only a few years older than her students, speaks English with notable ease and fluency; poised and expressive, she described the controversial decision she had made to leave the village and pursue a college degree at the Kaye College of Education in Beersheba.
“It’s not the choice for everyone, but I realized education is the first step to any progress,” she said. She explained that the decision for a woman to leave the community is looked down upon. “It’s not easy. Students graduate with knowledge and then have nowhere to go.” She paused, thoughtful. “Even so, education is better. At least with knowledge, you know when you’re standing still.”