Generous he may be but this Perl lacks wisdom

Our leading funder of Jewish schools is far from being an irreproachable educational hero.

By Keren David, July 1, 2010

Money talks. And in the case of Benjamin Perl, businessman and philanthropist, interviewed in the JC last week about his generous endowment of new Jewish schools, money says some ugly things.

Mr Perl helps to create Jewish schools for the "90 per cent" of Jewish parents he claims want them. These schools must be "United Synagogue plus", although Mr Perl condemns the US as "a politbureau", its JFS policy as "a dictatorship". He is scathing, too, about the Jewish Leadership Council and the UJIA. Worst of all are the founders of JCoSS, a school which dares to think beyond Mr Perl's narrow boundaries; they are "barrow boys" who have created "JCROSS…a school for goyim."

Does Mr Perl think through his own logic? If JCoSS was really established for "doubtful converts who cannot get into JFS" (even though they now can get into JFS) then it cannot have been set up in competition to JFS - unlike Mr Perl's pride and joy, Yavneh, which competes for the same pupils and offers a very similar product.

Does Mr Perl speak to parents? There are many who do not live between what he calls "the two saints"-- St Albans and St Johns Wood - for whom the removal of JFS to north-west London dictated a two-hour daily commute for their children to attend a Jewish school. Not all will like JCoSS's ethos, but it certainly offers something more local - unlike the even further-away Yavneh.

Does he assume that parents who pick a Jewish primary school for their children necessarily want a Jewish secondary school as well? I know many families like ours who send one child to a non-Jewish school, one to a Jewish one. Some modern Orthodox families send their children to selective private day schools, which they believe will best develop their academic potential.

Other families, like us, opt for the local comprehensive, deciding that a short walk to school and diverse friendships are healthy options for both child and society. Many people value their children's friendships with non-Jewish children - Perl's pesky "goyim".

Perl's biggest fear seems to be that "goyim" will contaminate his lovely Jewish schools. He fails to realise that he makes this inevitable by creating excess school places based on fantasy figures. He also cannot see that it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Recently, I attended a presentation for prospective pupils, given by the head teacher of Redbridge's King Solomon School. His face lit up as he described the experience of admitting non-Jewish children. He'd worried that the Jewish nature of the school would be diluted. In fact, the presence of children from other faiths made the Jewish children take their own more seriously.

It is perfectly possible to have an excellent Jewish education and a strong Jewish identity while attending a non-Jewish school. It is equally possible to maintain a school's Jewish teaching and ethos while admitting non-Jewish pupils (oh, and "doubtful" converts). If schools accept the benefits of state funding, they should not rule out accepting pupils from the wider community.

In education, one size does not fit all. We are blessed with excellent Jewish schools, and we have Benjamin Perl to thank for some of them. We must hope, however, that they do not produce a community in his likeness.

Last updated: 1:24pm, August 13 2010


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