Take education more seriously

The community still isn’t making Jewish schools enough of a priority

Friends of mine recently phoned the local Jewish primary school to ask about entrance procedures. Their daughter is barely three months old.

But you can understand their worry. Two weeks ago, the JC revealed that at least 30 children in our neighbourhood of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, did not get into a Jewish school this year.

The local Jewish primary, Hertsmere, is build on green-belt land, and is unable to expand to accommodate more students. Schools in neighbouring areas have limited places for Borehamwood children.

Educational entrepreneur Benjamin Perl said last Friday at the opening of Yavneh College that he hoped to open “one or two” other primaries in the area. But his plan to open a school in Watford collapsed in 2006, and who knows if or when his Borehamwood plans will come to fruition.

So as the mother of a two-year-old, who will be needing a school place in two years, I worry deeply. It is inconceivable to me that my daughter will not receive a Jewish education. If she is denied a place, I will be devastated.

Among my friends, the question of school places has replaced plunging house prices as an obsessive topic of conversation. Several couples have told me they will consider emigration if no school place is forthcoming.

In North-West London, friends are moving house to get their children into schools of their choice.

How did we get into this mess?

The shortage of primary places in the right areas has been commonly put down to poor planning by Anglo-Jewry, with the JLC’s Commission on Jewish Schools being established just last year — a good 10 years after the mismatch between supply and demand should have been anticipated.

But there is a deeper problem as well. When I have voiced these concerns recently, the reaction has often been unsympathetic, particularly from people in my parent’s generation, in their fifties.

One senior community figure told me he had never gone to a Jewish school, yet is Jewishly knowledgeable and committed. Why can’t the same be true for my children?

According to another respected community member, my daughter, who goes to shul every Shabbat, can already correctly identify alephs, and knows several blessings, should leave the places in Jewish schools to those who “really” need them. I should “stop worrying and send her to a normal school”.

The implication is that the emphasis on a formal Jewish education is exaggerated. But this shows a serious misunderstanding of what Jewish schools — when properly done — are all about.

Across the diaspora, there has been a massive rise in Jewish education, with enrolment in the UK jumping from 4,000 students in 1950 to 26,000 in 2005/6 and tripling in North America to around 200,000 in the past 15 years.

Parents choose Jewish schools for many reasons, including the wish to avoid poor local state schools, to have their children socialise with other Jews, and to impart a familiarity with basic rituals.

These are all legitimate — although how students graduate is more important than why they enter. But there is also a growing number of parents, mainly ones who are either more Jewishly active or who received a Jewish education themselves, who want their children to have advanced and mature Jewish knowledge, and realise that this is best delivered at school.

By the time she graduates secondary school, I would hope that my daughter, at the very least, speaks good Hebrew; is able to pick up a Chumash with Rashi, know what’s going on — and has the skills to work it out if she doesn’t; has a solid grounding in Jewish history, culture, thought, law; and understands what she’s saying when she’s davening.

All this is more than I can give her, even in my observant home, without quitting work and teaching her full-time myself.

Perhaps I am being overambitious, and other parents may have a different wish list. But increasing numbers of us see Jewish studies as a discipline, to be taken as seriously as any other academic subject. No one would expect parents to teach their children advanced maths at home, simply because they can count. Why do they think religion should be taught any less rigorously?

It is simply not true that previous generations managed all this without formal schooling. A small number may have educated themselves later, but they are the exceptions. The majority of our community, let’s be honest, may be able to sit through a Shabbat service, but how many can tell a machzor from a megillah — or the Rambam from the Ramban?

The parents I know today — more secure in their ethnic identity — want to raise more serious Jews. It is hardly believable that in 2008, when major communities across the world, from Australia to South America to France to Belgium to North America, have all understood the massive transformational impact good Jewish schools can have on their Jewish life, it should be necessary to reiterate that a vigorous Jewish school system — with a place for every child that wants one — should be our top communal priority. But apparently some are yet to be convinced.

    Last updated: 3:21pm, June 27 2008