Why we should resist the pull of Jewish schools

By Karen Glaser, January 31, 2014
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Results day is looming large for parents of Year Six children across the land. A month from now, they’ll know if their offspring have got through the door of their first-choice secondary school.
For many, that will be the comprehensive down the road, provided, of course, that the establishment is good, or good enough.

But for an increasing number of Jewish parents it seems it no longer matters how well the local comp performs. They will be sending their secondary-age children to either a Jewish or a private school.

Around 60 per cent of Jewish children now go to Jewish schools and although there are no statistics available on the proportion of parents who pay for their education — pay for it twice, that is — anecdotal evidence suggests that it is high.

I was certainly shocked to discover, last summer, that my daughter, Leah, was the only child among the 100 London-based participants at her Jewish summer camp who attended a mainstream secondary.

My daughter is the only Jewish child in her class

And the die is cast. Benjamin Perl, who has provided funding for at least 20 of our 40-plus Jewish state schools, is presumably speaking to the converted when he says he would like the sector to grow until 80 per cent of Jewish children are in faith schools.

If that doesn’t make you feel uneasy, consider the following. Only ten per cent of British Jews went to Jewish schools in the 1920s, and today just seven per cent of UK children go to independent schools.

Is it too much to say that when it comes to education the Jewish community is falling in with a separatist sense of identity? I think we are doing just that, and I find it regrettable. My daughter is the only Jewish child in her class, in an area of north London which is home to many Jews, and has been for generations. There is a sprinkling of Jew-ish children across her year group, but from what Leah says she is the only pupil who is openly, and proudly, Jewish.
When it comes to discussions on the Middle East — and since a third of my daughter’s class is Muslim, there are plenty of those — Leah is invariably the only person who knowledgeably and confidently stands up for Israel.

This cannot be a good thing — for us or non-Jews. If we don’t learn and play with each other it is easy to harbour stereotypes about the people who live among us. And a crucial way to break down those stereotypes is actually to get to know each other — to share experiences, and have difficult conversations about one of the world’s most bitter conflicts. Conversations which, over time, may, hopefully, bridge the division.

I know Jewish children will meet scores of non-Jews in the independent schools they attend in ever increasing numbers. But are we really saying that meaningful social cohesion takes place in those privileged and, I would argue, divisive silos?

It is not that I don’t understand the reasons we Jews are choosing to separate ourselves in education. A good academic standard, a welcoming atmosphere – the pulls are obvious.

And I know of one Jewish primary which is anything but a monocultural and segregated silo. My six-year-old, Aaron, is a pupil at Simon Marks Jewish Primary, a remarkable Orthodox school where Jews from all backgrounds — and lots of non-Jews — mix beautifully. Peer into the playground of this socially and ethnically mixed Hackney primary, and it looks like any other school in the area.

But Simon Marks is atypical and when it is time for Aaron to go to secondary school he will go to the comp down the road. Otherwise, I don’t see how we can get any closer to an ideal world where Jews and non-Jews, the poor and the prosperous, learn and play together. That’s my first choice, anyway.

Last updated: 2:45pm, January 31 2014