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.