By Rabbi Zvi
December 23, 2009
For many years there have only been two choices for Jewish mainstream schooling in Anglo-Jewry: Orthodox or more Orthodox. This has suited most of us, who (whatever our practice) are nominally Orthodox. The recent go-ahead for the JCoSS school (http://www.jcoss.org/) means that this is now broadened to include the "Progressive" or non-Orthodox wing of the wider community. However, this has not been enough for many, who want access to the tried and tested education of the longer-established Jewish schools. This is what the recent JFS Supreme Court decision (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6891093...) has thrown into confusion.
Let me make no bones about it. By throwing everything up in the air and forcing JFS and other Orthodox Jewish Schools to change their definitions for entry, this case will damage Reform, Liberal and Masorti congregations. We know that parents are desperate to get their children into Jewish schools, and most middle class parents will move house to get into the right school catchment area. By changing the definition of entry criteria this case has forced Orthodox Jews to define Jewishness by practice. Only those who attend an Orthodox Synagogue and who are affiliated with a recognized Orthodox body will be admitted from now on. Witness the rush over Rosh Hashanna to get children recognized with the US shuls.
So in the wake of this case we can expect a rush of parents to register their children with Orthodox shuls - and this means a bonanza for Orthodox congregations, particularly the United Synagogue in London. Where such affiliation is not considered to be a major issue by parents we can also expect that they will stay members of the shuls they have joined. The points system means that siblings will probably also need their parents' shul membership, and my experience with shuls is that once a family have started paying and affiliating (and with a little luck enjoying) a shul, they are unlikely to budge.
The JFS case has jogged Anglo-Jewry towards higher membership take-up for Orthodox shuls. And although the United Synagogue has been resisting it in the courts, this is bound ultimately to be to its benefit. It may well even mean that where schools used to quietly admit the occasional convert from the Progressive sects of Judaism, they will now find it easier to close the door. Where's the benefit in that.
Most perverse are the comments made by Jonathan Romain, my Reform colleague in Maidenhead. He is against any single-faith school and chairs the Accord group(http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/index.php/about/our-chair/). In his article in the Guardian The JFS ruling is a victory for Jews (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/16/jfs-supreme-c...) he says "It is no exaggeration to say that the supreme court has just saved the Jewish community from itself. Or, rather, from the more right-wing exclusivist tendencies that unfortunately seem to exert much greater sway than they deserve to." Nothing can be further from the truth. This case has made discrimination and exclusion more likely. It is unlikely to effect Jonathan's community - there is no danger of any Jewish school opening in Berkshire in the next ten years. Yet by cheering on this case and pressing for change, it seems that those who wish to see more inclusive religious schools have shot themselves in the foot.
I predict that after the dust has settled, there will be more exclusion and upset than there was before the case was brought, and that the Reform, Liberal and Masorti organizations will find themselves with a steady trickle of members with children away from their synagogues, into the Orthodox.
Finally, it is more than likely that new legislation will be passed to ensure that the status quo ante is reinstated: the pluralist lobby has not reckoned with the lobbying power of the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies.
It all brings to mind the old saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it!