Schools: we must face new reality

US rabbis’ high-handed dismissal of Progessives is a serious mistake


By Naftali Brawer and Michael Harris, January 14, 2010
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The Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue (RCUS) last week issued a statement (published in the JC) in response to the ongoing controversy surrounding admission to Jewish day schools. That statement may reflect the view of some of our colleagues, but we believe it to be deeply misguided. On such an important communal issue as school admissions, it is crucial that an alternative voice is heard from within the rabbinate, and indeed from within the RCUS itself.

We do share the view expressed in the RCUS statement that “every halachically Jewish child, regardless of observance level, is given an opportunity for Jewish education”. As Orthodox rabbis, we are concerned that halachically Jewish children could be disadvantaged by the recent Supreme Court ruling as they will no longer be given priority places over children who are not halachically Jewish.

But we have to deal with reality as it now is in the aftermath of the ruling. That reality currently saddles our schools with a test of Jewish practice for candidates for admission. That test, whether in the form in which it operated last autumn or in any reconfigured form, is cumbersome, expensive, and costly to administer. Worse, as many have noted, it is a radically un-Jewish way of determining Jewish identity. It fails even to guarantee that children deemed non-Jewish by all denominations are not given priority places.

What is required, therefore, is work for a change in the law that will put the determination of Jewish identity back where it belongs — in the hands of the Jewish community. Since there is no prospect of a change in the law without broad consensus across the Jewish community in favour of change, this involves all the denominations working together. This, in turn, requires realism and a willingness to compromise on the part of the Orthodox community.

Those who believe that the non-Orthodox movements will countenance a return to the status quo ante have simply failed to grasp the new reality that exists in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling against JFS.

Far from “holding us to ransom”, as the RCUS statement puts it, the non-Orthodox are simply protecting their interests in a completely understandable way.

The only plausible way forward is for all denominations to work together for a change in the law on the understanding that, in future, priority places at Jewish schools will be offered to anyone deemed Jewish by the rabbinic authority of any mainstream Jewish denomination — Orthodox, Masorti, Reform or Liberal.

This, of course, need not and must not imply acceptance by any one denomination of any other denomination’s definition of Jewish identity. Rather, it would mean that the rabbinic authorities of all the mainstream denominations had agreed to set aside their fundamental differences with regard to Jewish identity when it comes to providing places at Jewish schools.

We reject the argument that admitting non-halachic children into Orthodox schools will so destabilise Orthodox education as to make it untenable. It will certainly throw up various religious and social challenges for the school administration and the parent body but none so difficult as to be insurmountable. With determination and goodwill, we can certainly find creative solutions to these challenges.

Cross-communal efforts towards a change in the law require a process of healing in the aftermath of the pain, anguish and frustration felt on all sides of the debate about school admissions. Such a process — and communal relations generally — are impeded by bombastic and aggressive statements such as that issued last week by the RCUS. Just as we are hurt by disparaging descriptions of Orthodoxy by the non-Orthodox so the non-Orthodox are rightly offended by intemperate language. It is surely possible — and desperately necessary — for UK Jewish denominations and their spokespersons to articulate even the deepest disagreements in a spirit of communal darchei shalom.

Last week’s RCUS statement passes judgment from the sidelines, as if it is the lay leadership of British Jewry which is solely responsible for running the community and all that rabbis can do is fulminate from the margins. We believe that approach to be profoundly mistaken. What needs to happen now is that rabbis and lay leaders across the denominations work together in addressing new realities and furthering the interests of the community as a whole.

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the minister of Borehamwood & Elstree United Synagogue; Rabbi Dr Michael Harris is the minister of Hampstead United Synagogue. They are co-vice chairmen of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue

    Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010

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