The plight of the shomer Jewish student

By Adam Hilsenrath, February 5, 2014
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Chatting over chips and burgers (with pitta bread rather than buns to add that Jewish feel), those of us old enough to recall reminisced over the days when our Jewish Society filled a classroom.

Only five of us remember - and that makes half of those sitting around the two tables pushed together in the vast and empty room.

Several ex-Queen Elizabeth Boys School pupils have returned to the school as speakers to our little society, and there is always that customary twang of nostalgia and those comparisons to life in the years when they too enjoyed the taste of kosher food on a cold February lunchtime.

There is one point that, without fail, comes up for each and every returnee: “It used to be bigger. It used to fill the classroom every week.”

This is a dream for us, bettered only by this observation, harking back to a time that even I cannot remember: “We used to have to have it twice a week”.

Five years and five months ago, I attended my first Jewish Society event, sat down at the front of the classroom, and waited while people were served.

Finally, I tucked into my plate of pasta or burgers, while a wise and (or) interesting speaker delivered their message. It was not so long ago that our little society packed the house.

QE Boys’ Jewish Society is a group that has suffered from the expansion in faith schools that has enriched the North London Jewish community.

With a tendency for Jewish students in state schools to attend a Jewish school, and those across North London flooding into Yavneh College and JCoSS in the last decade, we who choose to attend non-Jewish state schools are becoming a rare breed.

I must confess I very nearly joined the trend. However, when faced with the close choice between Yavneh and QE, I chose the latter and the rest, as they say, is history - leaving me to reveal here the struggles of a state school Jewish Society.

It is not as if our society is dying (though spare a thought for us in case we do). There were certainly fears that after my year group departed the school, the attendance would dwindle and fade out.

But with the new school year came new pupils - few in number, but doubling our regular attendance. It was a breath of new life for our old, proud society (now is as good an opportunity as any to make a recruitment drive: all QE students unknown to me, start turning up!)

I suppose that being a part of this small society within this large and diverse school has affected my attitude to my identity as a Jew in the broader community.

I have always been proud of the flags I fly; the range includes Liverpool Football Club, my school, my family and Judaism.

It seems to me that the size of the group you represent, the part you play and the proportion you constitute has a direct bearing on what it means to you.

The damage done by each Liberal Democrat ministerial scandal is greatly increased by the severely limited numbers involved in the first place.

That I make up almost 10 per cent of our society makes it mean more to me than if I were only one per cent. That I co-lead it further increases its significance.

In many ways, I see our Jewish Society as a microcosm of Judaism – and what it means to me to be Jewish - in wider society.

Adam Hilsenrath is co-leader of the Jewish Society in Queen Elizabeth Boys School in Barnet. He enjoys writing about the plight of the shomer Shabbat Jewish student in a non-Jewish school, sports teams, fêtes and all other ramblings of a Jewish teenager.

Last updated: 5:20pm, February 5 2014