Beis Medrash Elyon School, behave!

Education is a prime Jewish concern, but not at the expense of good reputation

By Geoffrey Alderman, April 23, 2009

Beis Medrash Elyon is an independent secondary school for boys. It was established in 2001 and currently has on its roll some 45 or so pupils. Most of its teaching staff are part-time. It is an Orthodox Jewish faith school; indeed five years ago it took the trouble of obtaining special designation by the UK government as one of a select number of independent schools that are permitted “to take account of certain religious considerations in making specified employment decisions which relate to teaching staff”.

That means that, in deciding whom to employ as a teacher, it can discriminate without the slightest fear of legal sanction against anyone whose face (if I can put it that way) is deemed not to fit.

It could, for example, discriminate against me — Orthodox though I am — and I daresay it would do so, because, though Orthodox, I neither practise nor profess the precise type of Orthodoxy that it favours.

But what the BME school cannot do, what no Statutory Instrument has given it the right to do, and what no precept of Orthodox Judaism permits it to do, is to operate outside the laws governing the construction and use of dwellings and other buildings. And that is precisely what it is doing now, and what it has been doing for the past five years.

BME operates from premises situated at a residential building in Golders Green Road, in north-west London. The building has been occupied by the school since 2004. In principle, there is nothing wrong with a school operating from a house, provided of course that the house conforms to the relevant legal requirements, and that planning permission has been obtained. In this case, no such permission had been or has been granted.

Three years ago, the local authority (Barnet council) served the school with an enforcement notice demanding it close down at that site. A council spokesman pointed out that to have granted planning permission would have meant losing a residential dwelling, which the borough could ill afford. The school took no notice. Instead, it applied for planning permission retrospectively. At the beginning of this month, the application was rejected. The school is now required to close. But will it?

Four years ago, there was a very similar controversy in the same borough. The Beis Soroh Schneirer school for primary-age girls applied for planning permission to convert a disused warehouse on an industrial estate in West Hendon. The planning committee, for very cogent reasons, unanimously refused the application.

But what the governors had not told the committee was that they actually intended to move the school into the warehouse whatever the outcome of the application. And on the very next morning after planning permission had been refused, builders started converting the warehouse.

Painful indeed were the epithets heaped upon me when I aired this matter in the JC (November 11 2005). The school employed some very clever lawyers and planning experts, who mapped out a way in which it could continue to operate according to the letter of the law.

In September 2005, the school opened for business, and has been open ever since. I, meanwhile, was told that, for having opposed these stratagems I was a communal disgrace. There were even threats of legal action against me. But I am afraid that in this matter I saw and see no grounds whatever for penance.

The fact of the matter is that the cynical and selfish actions of the BSS school (which even the local MP, Andrew Dismore, opposed) created anti-Jewish feeling where none had previously existed. And that, I fear, is precisely what is going to happen again now, unless someone (and it certainly cannot be me) prevails upon the governors of the BME school to act not simply within the law, but with a firm grasp of the wider responsibility they shoulder.

Dina d’Malechuta Dina — The Law of the Land is the Law. So says the Talmud. But Jews are also accountable to and for each other. The governors of the BME may be tempted to employ lawyers even cleverer than those engaged by the BSS. They may even win. But what they need to ask themselves at the outset is this: how much will such a victory add to the sum total of prejudice against Jews and Judaism in this country?

Last updated: 4:21pm, April 23 2009