Without our schools, we are doomed

By Lord Jonathan Sacks, September 5, 2008

Last week our Jewish day schools celebrated yet another outstanding set of results, and we should be immensely proud of them. Anyone who is anxious about the Jewish future should visit our schools. There they will see a quiet miracle: the West's oldest faith becoming young again on the faces and in the minds of our children. That is where the Jewish future is being written, and it is a strong, knowledgeable and committed future.

The history of Judaism across the centuries and continents can be written in terms of its schools. Where they were strong, Jewish life was strong. Where they were weak, Jewish life eventually disappeared. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish community of Alexandria was among the richest and most acculturated anywhere in the world. It had magnificent synagogues, but it was Jewishly uneducated. It declined, leaving no impact on the Jewish world - though ironically it had an impact, through Philo, on Christianity.

That is why in 1971 Lord Jabokovits launched his programme, Let My People Know, and why in 1993
I launched Jewish Continuity. The response of the community was extraordinary. In recent years, British Jewry has built more day schools than ever before in its history. As the Wagner Report earlier this year revealed, 30 years ago only a quarter of our children attended Jewish day schools; today six in ten do so. The result is a more engaged generation of young Jews than we have had before.

Before embarking on Continuity, I spent three years of research on the impact of various factors on identity formation, in Britain and elsewhere, within the Jewish community and beyond. The result was unequivocal. To sustain a distinctive identity in the open society, you have to invest in education. Nothing else, other than religious practice in the home, has remotely comparable effect. Without its own schools, no Jewish community will survive in the long run.

There always were - there still are - resistances to be overcome, and they come from within the Jewish community itself. Fortunately, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown understood the importance of Jewish schools very well indeed. So did successive secretaries of state for education, from John Patten and Gillian Shepherd to Ruth Kelly and Ed Balls. They know how much Britain has to gain from a strong Jewish community, as it does from all faith communities, which is why they support faith schools in general.

At the same time they recognise, as do we, that such schools must promote social cohesion. That was the thrust of the government's 2007 statement, Faith in the System. The Jewish community, through the Board of Deputies, had already, a year before, made such a commitment on behalf of Jewish schools across the religious spectrum. These are not just words: every school has its own programmes to educate pupils toward social responsibility and concern for the common good.

Children in Jewish schools are taught active citizenship, service to others, respect for difference and the covenant of human solidarity. In my last book, The Home We Build Together, I showed how Jewish schools played an essential part in teaching Jewish children respect for Britain and its institutions. Faith schools are good for Britain, not just for faith.

The fact is that no religion has predicated its survival on education more than Judaism. Abraham, says the Torah, was chosen "in order to instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just". At the heart of our holiest prayer is the line, "You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children". Eighteen centuries before Britain, Jewry had its own system of universal compulsory education, the first of its kind in the world.

At every critical stage of their history, Jewish communities made investment in schools their highest priority: in 12th-century France, 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Poland, and post-Holocaust Orthodoxy in America. Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was education and the life of the mind.

Isaiah said it best in a line from last week's haftarah: "All your children shall be learned of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children". Children who are confident in their identity, know their people's story, are familiar with its literature and at home in its practices, who understand their responsibilities to the wider society and who practise the values of tzedakah and chessed are at peace with themselves and with the world. They become a credit to the Jewish people and an asset to Britain. We can ask no more; we can do no less.

Our Jewish day schools are academically among the best. Jewishly they have raised a generation more knowledgeable about Judaism than their parents. They have done us, and Britain, proud.

Sir Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

Last updated: 3:54pm, September 5 2008