Do the parents of 'M' really know what they are fighting for?

By DLeigh-Ellis
December 9, 2009

As an ex-pupil of JFS I am following the current debate regarding the admissions policy with a keen eye. My interest is defined further because of my own personal experience of the JFS ‘brand’ of Judaism. In order for the reader to understand I should probably explain that I am a child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. Furthermore, due to the fact that my parents, were never married, my mother was required to produce my grandparents ketubah as proof that she herself was Jewish. This is before I was even considered for a place in the school. I distinctly remember the moment in my interview for the school (which my mother was also required to attend,) when I was asked to leave the interview room so that a few highly personal questions could be directed towards my mother. Of course it was not until several years later that I found out why I had been asked to leave the room, but the feeling of the school overcrossing its bounds remained with me for a long time.

This may seem invasive, but from a Conservative point of view it is possible to understand. However, when compared to the experience of my partner (also an ex JFS pupil,) the absurdity is turned up to eleven. Her parents are both Jewish, however due to the fact that their marriage took place in a Reform synagogue, my partner’s mother was forced to produce not only her own Ketubah, but that of her own parents as well.

At the same time as I entered secondary school, the first considerations with regard to my Barmitzvah were also underway. At the time my family were members of one of the many United synagogues in north London. Although I am Jewish according to Halacha, and there is no United synagogue policy to prevent children with non-Jewish fathers being Barmitzvah, the prejudice displayed from certain members of the synagogue elite forced myself, my mother and sister to leave the shul and join the (now defunct) North London Progressive Synagogue, at the time based on Amhurst Park. It was a difficult move at the time, but one that was ultimately highly rewarding and we stayed for many happy years with the NLPS community, until its eventual closure some years later.

I would not find the JFS admissions debacle so amusing if it was not for the point that it completely misses the underlying divisions that plague the school. At NLPS I attended the chedar every week, after Barmitzvah I continued to teach at the chedar, I completed the post-Barmitzvah Kabbalat Torah scheme for a further two years and was an active member of the community.

However, to the uber-powerful clique that is the JFS Jewish Studies department, this amounted to nothing. The fact that I was educated about Judaism through my progressive synagogue and in class was one of the few JFS students who did not treat the Jewish-Studies programme as an excuse to catch up on some sleep was not enough to counter the comments made by several teachers that amounted to the suggestion that I was in fact basically a goy. The knowledge of other pupils regarding reform/liberal Judaism amounted to no more than the assumption that because some of the shuls had organs, that they were basically churches. The history of Reform Judaism was taught in alignment with two foundations, primarily that it was an inevitable result of Jewish assimilation in the late 19th century and therefore just another step on the slippery slope to apostasy. No attention was paid to its ideals and even less to the teachings of its founding thinkers such as Samuel Holdheim and Abraham Geiger. The second point of call for the JFS branding of ‘lesser’ Judaism’s was to argue that as Hitler killed all Jews, regardless of political or religious affiliation, the reform movement was therefore ‘not worth it.’ Even if you were Reform, you would end up in the camps, therefore you ‘might as well’ remain Orthodox. Most JFS pupils were happy to accept this simplified version of facts, and as a result the reform/progressive and liberal pupils in JFS were often made to doubt their own backgrounds.

JFS is a state-sponsored comprehensive. It has a duty to its own pupils and arguably to the taxpayer too, to educate its pupils in a non-partisan fashion. The involvement with the Aish foundation, an ultra-Conservative religious organization described by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly as ‘just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today,’ should be seriously questioned, especially after their demonstrated ability to harass individuals who have made their desire to not be contacted by the foundation entirely clear. Personally, I attended one or perhaps two Aish meetings in my first year of sixth form, yet I was still being contacted via telephone by their evangelists (not technically the right word, but appropriate,) for at least two years after expressly detailing my wish to be removed from their database. This was not an isolated incident, the inevitable bi-monthly phone call from the desperate Aisher becoming something of an in-joke amongst many of my friends. There were darker moments too, one friend who attended an Aish trip to New York was gobsmacked when one of the Aish Rabbi’s young children called him ‘a dirty Arab,’ simply because he was standing in the hotel lobby without a kippah on. I don’t know whether the comment is shocking because it was made by the son of a rabbi, or because the child was so young, however my friend was left literally speechless after hearing the comment. Aish also has dubious contacts, I will not go into the connection between Aish and The Clarion Fund, started by Raphael Shore, an Aish employee, however, the ideological alliance is disturbingly pronounced. A quick google search will inform the reader of the controversy.

The admissions case tickles me because I begin to wonder if, should the unnamed ‘M’ win and be granted a place at the school, he or she would be naïve enough to believe that the issue would end there. Understandably, it has become a matter of principles for both sides but this stigma will remain with the child for his entire JFS career. There will be whispers behind his/her back. Despite the fact that the majority of JFS pupils would not describe themselves as ‘religious,’ (that comes after leaving the school,) the school insists on sticking to a right-leaning, Orthodox way of thinking. Furthermore, it often presents a one-sided view of smaller Jewish sects aimed to coerce pupils into subconsciously accepting Orthodox (primarily United) Judaism as the only legitimate brand.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, perhaps since I left the school things have changed, perhaps the Jewish-Studies department has matured. I must stress that within the department there were good teachers, who valued diversity of opinion, but this was a rare phenomenon, and given the direction of the department I would hazard a guess that it has become even rarer.

JFS provided me with a good education for which I am grateful, yet it served better to help me define the issues in society that I choose to oppose, primarily discrimination and deliberate or willful ignorance that serves to prevent intellectual, philosophical and moral enlightenment. Ultimately I would have to ask, why would you wish to send your child to a school that was actively fighting you in court to prevent your child’s admission? Surely, the issue runs deeper than the admissions policy and the child’s experience of feeling different, no doubt brought to the fore by the court case, will only increase once he/she becomes a pupil.

Apologies for the American spelling, I can’t get msword to change into UK English.


moshetzarfati2 (not verified)

Wed, 12/09/2009 - 22:05

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What a tremendously moving and informative piece. Thank you. I have always wondered why on earth the parents of M and others would want to send their child to a school which is quite obviously not good enough for that child and which would make his/her life a misery should the Supreme Court case go in the parents' favour.
The tax payer should not fund schools which does not allow the children of all tax payers to attend.


Thu, 12/10/2009 - 09:31

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DLE, I agree with Moshe here. Truly a fantastic post.


Thu, 12/10/2009 - 11:31

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There are not many Judaisms, whether the author wishes there to be or not. There are many religions - it is better to not to name most of them and thereby give them credit - but there is was and always will be only one Judaism. That Judaism is what was given to Moses and the entire Jewish people at Mt. Sinai for an eternal inheritance for all Israel's descendants and her converts. 'Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov' - 'Torah that Moshe commanded us is an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob' (Deuteronomy 33:4). [How one converts is not made up by us or what we feel like, but it is also contained within the same Torah that was given.]

The author may have a lot of emotional arguments, but the United Synagogue does not just make up rules! As the author writes 'there is no United synagogue policy to prevent children with non-Jewish fathers being Barmitzvah' - that is because according to the TORAH not according to united synagogue, you, me, or anyone else says so.

Any religion or what I will call 'alternative system claiming to be Judaism, that has the effect of disassociating Torah from its roots', is something other than Judaism. It may be very nice, it may look pretty, it may sound resonant; but the fact is it is NOT Judaism. The problem that we have is specific to our generation, to assimilation, and to over 2,000 years of exile.

This is not blaming the author because by what he writes he actually knows very little, but this message is really expressing blame at the leaders of the 'alternative systems claiming to be Judaism' that are ripping the Jewish people away from Torah, away from who we are. As it says in the Holy Zohar - 'Torah and G-d are absolutely One', so heaven forbid the Jewish people ever try to disconnect from G-d and His Holy Torah. That, my friend, is what keeps us together and what keeps us Jewish, and what keeps us safe.

Honest Blogger

Thu, 12/10/2009 - 15:04

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"Moshe is a fatty too" is probably one of " Curse your God's sock puppets (sorry-In Al Rabbak in Arabic means "Curse Your God")

Troll Alert !
Sock Puppet Alert !

As Jonathan Hoffman says "don't feed the trolls"


Thu, 12/10/2009 - 15:29

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HB, how long did it take you to work out cut and paste?


Thu, 12/10/2009 - 18:15

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Thanks to all the positive comments, if I may I will briefly respond to the criticisms put forward by bestfootiw.

I understand how technically there may only be one Judaism, as stated in the Torah, however, we are talking about a religion that is 3-4000 years old... Interpretations are abound and that is simply a fact of this world... You can choose to ignore that, but it doesn't make it right.

Technically, synagogues did not even exist in the Temple times, and furthermore, the Temple did not even exist when G-d gave the Torah at Sinai, therefore any Synagogue brand, regardless of whether it be Conservative or Liberal, is an interpretation of the original Judaism. Even the Chasidic movement, arguably one of the most 'religious' strands of Judaism is a medieval interpretation. If you also believe the argument that the Jews became Jews at Sinai, then Abraham himself was not a Jew, yet all the founding principles of the religion are based on him. Abraham differed from his predecessors because he believed in G-d, whole and one... and that was apparently a revolutionary idea in his time. Judaism was rooted in Abrahamic teachings but dynamically altered through the experience of a people in bondage. It evolved as a result, so the ideals confirmed by Sinai were not entirely the same as the original Abrahamic ideals. Every time Judaism has been forced to it has evolved, that is integral to its survival.

If there is only one level of Judaism then why are we not still sacrificing animals? If you would argue that is because such a law only applies in Temple times, then I would respond that such a law is in itself an integral proof of Judaic evolution. We do in fact have a living example of two-millenia old Judaism in the form of the Samaritans, so according to your logic, their religious worship is more legitimate than any other Jewish sect.

Even the Zohar, which you cite, is something that whilst based in ancient teachings was not written down until millenia later, until the time when it was needed!

With regard to my 'emotional arguments,' I will add that of course this piece is emotional, it is based on personal experience. I don't understand how you can claim that I actually 'know very little,' when I am referring specifically to events experienced by myself that I know to be true. As an ex-pupil of the school in question I feel it is perfectly within my rights to comment upon some of its policies.

Ultimately, if reinterpreting a religion serves to bring an individual closer to G-d then there can be little wrong with it. Its like the famous quote from the Rabbi who was asked, 'Rabbi - is it ok for me to drive to shul on Shabbat,' the rabbi's response, 'that depends if you are driving uphill or downhill.'

The rabbi wasn't referring to the topography, but the sense of spiritual awakening, if driving to shul is the first step in an individual coming back to their Judaism, then it is a good thing. If they already go to shul but have just become a little lazy it is a bad thing.

Everything must be viewed in its context bestfoot, everything!! Things are not inherently wrong because of what they say. Judaism promotes discussion of its statements and ideals, if it did not there would be no Talmud and we would never have heard of Rashi or the Lubavitch Rebbe. To me Judaism is a moral light because it seeks to stimulate spiritual discussion, not reduce it to dull narrow-minded ideals.

I overran on this response slightly, but I hope it goes some way towards helping you understand where I am coming from.


Thu, 12/10/2009 - 19:22

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"Although I am Jewish according to Halacha, and there is no United synagogue policy to prevent children with non-Jewish fathers being Barmitzvah, the prejudice displayed from certain members of the synagogue elite forced myself, my mother and sister to leave the shul and join the (now defunct) North London Progressive Synagogue, at the time based on Amhurst Park." I think that by discriminating against people like you, the United Synagogue is doing a lot of harm to the religion by putting Jewish putting of their religion. Anyone who has a Jewish mum and non Jewish dad is Jewish according to every rabbi and should be treated as Jewish and welcomed into the religion because Judaism is a small enough religion as it is and it is a shame to lose Jewish people.

JFS takes on many reform Jews and needs to be respectful of people from different backgrounds. Even many members of Orthodox synagogues drive to their synagogue on shabbat and park two roads away from their synagogue/ eat vegetarian food in non Kosher restaurants and live more of a reform life than a strictly orthodox one.


Mon, 12/14/2009 - 14:05

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