This JFS mess was avoidable

The Chief Rabbi could have prevented all this misery over a decade ago

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 9, 2009

I have read few documents in the field of Anglo-Jewish history more miserable in tone and more immature in content than the “Certificate of Religious Practice”, which is now required from all parents who wish their children to be considered for admission to the JFS in September 2010.

Only applicants scoring at least three points in answer to a series of questions will be given “priority” status. Has your child attended synagogue (apparently any synagogue, however informal, will do) on the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (two points)?

Has your child “engaged in a formal Jewish education” for at least two years (one point)? Has your child participated in any Jewish voluntary activity (one point)?

Answer the first and either of the other questions in the affirmative, obtain the necessary signed confirmations, and bingo! You’re in the priority queue.

Why do I declare the document to be miserable in tone and immature in content? The questions themselves could hardly be simpler to answer, lacking as they do any semblance of religious depth. Nothing about keeping kosher. Nothing about knowledge of synagogue ritual. A “synagogue”-attending “Jew for Jesus” could pass this “religious practice” test with flying colours.

If he were a man of principle he would have stood up and denounced that ruling as null and void

We all know how the JFS has arrived at this pass. But do we all know why? We all know that over the past few years, JFS has rejected applicants on the grounds that their Jewish status has been rejected by the United Synagogue’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks.

In some cases this has been because he has refused to recognise conversions carried out under the authority of his brother chief rabbis in Israel. In the case of child “M”, it has been because the mother had undergone a non-Orthodox conversion.

Now, under the pressure of an Appeal Court ruling, Lord Sacks has decreed that the rules of entry into the JFS previously sanctioned by him must be set aside, and in their place new rules must be substituted that disregard entirely the status of the applicant’s mother — or father — and which focus instead upon what he is pleased to call religious practice.

But, as to the details of such practice, Lord Sacks has announced that each school under his authority is free to devise its own criteria, so long as these do not include a halachic test of the very sort that he had previously decreed. Lord Sacks has (in other words) washed his hands of the matter.

However, that has not prevented him from praising the United Synagogue for having fought the case of child “M”. Meanwhile, the president of the United Synagogue, Dr Simon Hochhauser, has gone out of his way to praise Chief Rabbi Professor Lord Sacks, who has (apparently) steadfastly upheld “the core principles of inclusive Orthodoxy” in relation to JFS admissions.

If Chief Rabbi Professor Lord Sacks stuck to his principles, surely, he would not have washed his hands of the matter, would he?

If he believed sincerely that Israeli conversions were invalid, and that child “M” was not Jewish in any sense recognised by him, he would have stood in front of the world on the morrow of the Appeal Court’s ruling and he would have denounced that ruling as null and void.

He would have declared that he would instruct the JFS and its parent body, the United Synagogue, to ignore the judgment and continue about their business as if it had never been made.

And he would have added — if he were a man of principle, that is — that if this meant that he would go to jail, and suffer for what he professed to believe in — “the core principles of inclusive Orthodoxy” — then so be it.

After all, if Chief Rabbi Professor Lord Sacks and (don’t forget) his dayanim are prepared, now, to concede that the admission of children to the JFS and recognition of the Jewish status of those children are two completely different things, why in heaven’s name did they not pronounce thus a decade and more ago, thus preventing a great deal of human misery and saving the United Synagogue a great deal of money into the bargain?

Last updated: 4:30pm, September 9 2009