Do Jewish schools create empty shuls?

Increasing numbers ought to lead to more children in synagogue. But that isn’t always the case


By Rabbi Pete Tobias, May 26, 2013
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We are now in May, the arbitrary date that signals the start of attendance at Shabbat services which count towards the gaining of priority points for admission to local Jewish schools. It continues until the end of October, or until the requisite eight synagogue visits that are deemed to demonstrate commitment to Jewish practice have been made.

There is an irony in this very temporary swelling of Shabbat congregations in many synagogues. Jewish schools, I have been led to believe, exist in order to ensure that children remain attached to and involved in the Jewish community. In order to gain access to these Jewish schools, children have to demonstrate that attachment and involvement by attending synagogue services.

Once in those Jewish schools, they are educated about Judaism’s beliefs and practices and the place of their ancient heritage in their lives. Part of that heritage is the celebration of festivals during the Jewish year. Jewish schools are closed for those festivals, and presumably the expectation is that the children will attend their synagogues to celebrate them.

In my experience, however, many families, when they find their children off school at times when most British schoolchildren are still learning, take cheap, off-season breaks to theme parks or sunnier foreign climes. Little wonder that I was moved to remark on Facebook: “Why do we pray for rain during Succot? So that it falls on Jewish parents and their children at Alton Towers.”

So the irony is complete. Children and their families are required to attend synagogue services to procure places at schools that provide them with the opportunity to continue that attendance at Jewish festivals — and that opportunity is often declined.

Let me be clear. I have no complaint about the academic excellence of Jewish schools, and I applaud the manner in which their pupils acquire qualifications enabling them to take their place in society.

My concern is that the synagogue attendance which was a requirement to gain entry to these schools diminishes or disappears once school admission is obtained.

Of course, there are occasions when some children from some Jewish schools do attend synagogue services, usually for friends’ bar- or batmitzvah ceremonies. These do not, however, seem to provide an opportunity for them to demonstrate the Jewish knowledge imparted to them, unless, in the case of some, that knowledge involves the ability to text, chew and converse loudly during religious services.

On the other hand, when a bar- or batmitzvah celebrant who attends a general state school invites his or her friends to my synagogue, the visitors, many of them not Jewish, are polite, attentive and appreciative of the opportunity to witness a Jewish ceremony.

The children celebrating such occasions may not have enjoyed the benefits of a full-time Jewish education, but they, their families and their friends often show greater respect for the community and the heritage it represents. Of course, there are many children in Jewish schools who do show respect and whose behaviour is exemplary, but in many cases it is easy to distinguish between those children who attend Jewish schools and those who do not.

Then take the recent festival of Shavuot, which falls more often than not on a weekday. Pupils at Jewish schools have no school to attend but it is unlikely that many of them will be seen in synagogue. Nor, of course, will Jewish children at non-Jewish schools — but at least they are engaged in education rather than recreation.

Last year Shavuot fell on a Sunday. Even though it was a bank holiday weekend, I invited the children and parents of the religion school to take part in our festival service. Over 90 people came: children from Jewish schools made up less than 10 per cent of the total — a significantly greater number than the weekday attendance in previous years (and better than the zero children for Shavuot last week).

So the children who briefly swell the numbers on Shabbat over the coming months will soon be gone, having achieved the necessary points to receive a daily Jewish education that apparently renders future attendance at synagogue services obsolete. The existence of Jewish schools remains for me a conundrum about the relationship between the Jewish community and the rest of society, and, particularly, between the families of children attending Jewish schools and their synagogue communities.

It leads me to paraphrase the conclusion reached by the schools of Hillel and Shammai about the existence of humankind (Talmud Eruvin 13b) in the following way: It would have been better had Jewish schools not been invented, but since they have, let us look to their deeds and take note of them.

Pete Tobias is rabbi of the Liberal Synagogue Elstree and author of new children’s book, The Voice of the Shaking Mountain, Pete Tobias is rabbi of the Liberal Synagogue Elstree and author of new children’s book, The Voice of the Shaking Mountain, Liberal Judaism, £4.99

Last updated: 5:45pm, May 26 2013