King David’s food policy is nuts

By Geoffrey Alderman, August 14, 2008

In defiance of any logic available, King David Primary is angrily defending its packed-lunch ban

Big trees from little acorns grow.

In my June 13 column, I referred to a distressing and increasingly confrontational situation that was developing in a "maintained" (ie, taxpayer-funded) Jewish school. I explained that the matter was in essence straightforward. It concerned the right of a parent, at this school, to provide her or his children with a daily packed lunch and (therefore) to forgo the lunch provided by the school's kitchen. I was careful to identify neither the parent nor the school. Instead I merely expressed the hope that the Chief Rabbi, on to whose desk I suspected the matter was about to land, would recognise and insist "on the primacy of parental rights, and on the prevalence of reason and reasonableness over sheer bigotry and stupidity".

Well, the next thing that happened was that a Mr Simon Rosenthal, chair of governors at the King David Primary School, Manchester, wrote to the JC identifying this school as the school in question. After commenting in somewhat negative terms upon my admittedly modest journalistic abilities, Mr Rosenthal declared - if not in so many words - that since the school maintained "a kosher eating facility" supervised by the Manchester Beth Din, he was damned if he was going to allow anyone - even (said he) a grandchild of the Chief Rabbi - to bring a packed lunch into his school.

My gast was flabbered. Not only had Mr Rosenthal identified the school. He had displayed, in ample measure, precisely the sort of misplaced pomposity and aggravated foolishness to which, without naming names, I had discreetly drawn your attention the previous week.

But Mr Rosenthal's folly was as nothing compared to the response of the Chief Rabbi's office. I should explain that two years ago, the "School Food Team" of the Department for Education and Skills (as it then was) had requested from Sir Jonathan Sacks the benefit of his thoughts on pupils being permitted to bring their own packed lunches into Jewish maintained schools. Replying (January 19, 2006) in the name of the Chief Rabbi, the Executive Director of his office, Mrs Syma Weinberg, explained that as children at the King David school come from "diverse" backgrounds, they were rightly prohibited from bringing their own packed lunches, and the school was right to insist on "school meals that are clearly supervised according to Jewish Law".

In my column of June 13 last, I expressed surprise at this ruling: to my certain knowledge, a number of schools under the authority of the Chief Rabbi, and with children from similarly diverse backgrounds, allow and even mandate packed lunches: the Sinai school, Kenton (which my children attended), for starters. The King David Primary School, Liverpool. The Moriah Day School, Pinner (at the Moriah there are no kitchens; all pupils must bring their own lunches). And doubtless others.

We can safely rule out, therefore, the argument that some halachic imperative underpins the inflexibility of Mr Rosenthal and his fellow governors. But, just to make sure, solicitors acting on the instructions of the Manchester parent in question asked the Chief Rabbi, in writing, whether there were indeed any Orthodox religious grounds to support Mr Rosenthal's ruling. On July 24, Mrs Weinberg replied: "The Chief Rabbi does not answer questions of the nature raised in your letter." And I should add that Mrs Weinberg had already put in writing (June 27) Sir Jonathan's view that it was not for him to advise schools about their "food policy".

Mr Rosenthal may be tempted to respond that in this matter he is advised by the Manchester Beth Din. Leaving aside the fact that it is the Chief Rabbi, not the dayanim of the Beth Din (Manchester or any other), who is the designated religious authority for the school, and that the aforementioned Chief Rabbi has clearly - and unequivocally - disqualified himself from having any jurisdiction in this affair, Mr Rosenthal must surely admit that whatever religious ground he supposed he had secured for his ruling has now quite fallen away.

It may be true that schools in the state sector can, on health grounds, ban specific items in a home-made packed lunch. They cannot ban the packed lunch itself.

That being the case, perhaps Mr Rosenthal and his fellow governors can be prevailed upon to manufacture a more credible excuse for their refusal to allow pupils to bring their own food to eat during the lunch-break. Perhaps - who knows? - they will even condescend to share this intelligence with the rest of us.

    Last updated: 9:04am, August 14 2008


    Helen Feld

    Fri, 08/15/2008 - 10:39

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    In some independent schools packed lunches are banned because the only way to finance a hot lunch programme to to require all pupils to take part -- otherwise it runs at a loss.  In a state school this might cause a legal problem.