JCoSS is non-Orthodox, not ‘cross-communal’

The ethos of the new Jewish Community Secondary School is at odds with Orthodoxy.


Computer-generated view of JCoSS from the brochure of the new school

Computer-generated view of JCoSS from the brochure of the new school

The scheduled opening of JCoSS (the Jewish Community Secondary School) next year has generated unprecedented interest. Adorned with the slogan “excellence, choice, openness, inclusion”, its website describes it as “the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK”. JCoSS takes pride in its admissions policy, which “will treat on an equal basis all pupils recognised as Jewish by any of the UK’s mainstream movements” and its intention to deliver Jewish studies “while being non-judgemental between the various mainstream Jewish traditions”.

JC readers may not have been surprised last month to discover that “JCoSS worries Orthodox [United Synagogue] rabbis”, or to have been told by Miriam Shaviv, in a spurious comparison with Limmud, that rather than fighting a war already lost, the rabbinate should “face facts” and “embrace JCoSS”. The battle-lines seem drawn already.

I am sure that numerous children from US-type homes will attend JCoSS. However the Orthodox rabbinate might prefer the world to look, we will support and nurture the Jewish lives of our communities’ children, irrespective of the educational choices made for them by their parents.

But it is no secret that in a rare display of virtual unanimity, US rabbis have strongly opposed formal involvement with JCoSS. Yet this has no bearing on our commitment to our children in the school. There is a spirited and evolving debate about how to achieve this: some will run out-of-school programming; others are grappling with alternatives to support JCoSS pupils. And it is with deep sadness that we currently feel unable to work within JCoSS: this painful decision is informed by real concern for our children expressed in the context of legitimate anxieties about its identity.

Unfortunately, behind the happy “cross-communal” picture painted by JCoSS’s website and cautiously worded literature, there lies a confused ideology that conflicts squarely with basic Orthodox principles.

I am certain that JCoSS will indeed try to teach its pupils “to understand and respect all the mainstream Jewish traditions”. This inclusivism may even succeed at a practical level: the school intends its kitchens to be kosher and its weekend programmes to be Shabbat-observant, even if it cannot commit to closing on second-day Yomtov.

But ideologically this descends into pluralistic incoherence. Presumably, pupils will be taught that some believe the Torah to be the unmediated word of God, while others think that it was authored by human beings; that some consider traditional Shabbat restrictions to be optional, but others consider them absolutely binding; that while the Torah itself expressly forbids certain types of relationships, some movements consider them to be valid life-options.

And while this dissent is simply a statement of fact, the ethos of JCoSS demands that each of these contradictory options is taught as equally legitimate. Apart from the obvious fact that children need certainty, a sense of imperative and firm ideas to help them build a meaningful connection to their faith, this type of pluralism is theologically untenable from an Orthodox perspective.

In a seminal 1990 essay, later developed into his book One People?, the Chief Rabbi masterfully explains the “incoherence of pluralism” by obseving that it “presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of time. This is the rock on which pluralism founders… Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a contradiction are true is itself a contradiction.”

A school whose raison d’être is the validation of conflicting stances on key issues of belief and practice must be considered at best non-Orthodox; in reality it is, theologically, completely and irreconcilably at odds with Orthodoxy. The somewhat clumsy phrase “pan-non-Orthodox” is a more theologically accurate description of JCoSS than “cross-communal”.

I understand the motivation of JCoSS’s founders. The educational world is dominated by Orthodoxy: in varying degrees, the non-Orthodox denominations disagree with Orthodox beliefs and practices, and most acutely with its definition of Jewishness. Why shouldn’t they create a school that incorporates their brands of Judaism? Actually, JCoSS acknowledges that in the event of over-subscription, it will prioritise those “who are not considered to be halachically Jewish by… all other Jewish schools” ie children considered Jewish only by the non-Orthodox.

I respect their objectives, albeit tempered by genuine concern for the children of US communities, but I challenge the founders of JCoSS to reciprocate that respect by abandoning the term “cross-communal” in favour of a more candid representation of their school’s ideology. Potential parents should recognise that they may be inadvertently depriving their children of their Torah heritage.

Unsurprisingly, JCoSS has provoked an identity crisis for the United Synagogue. The US has always been good at asserting what it isn’t (too frum, too Zionist etc), but imprecise when stating what it actually stands for. Are we too afraid of the consequences to admit that even the welcoming, inclusivist version of Orthodoxy that we champion has hard edges? Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: pluralism and Orthodoxy are antithetical. As the Chief Rabbi wrote: “Pluralism is no more tolerant than Orthodoxy… Each represents a way of viewing the relationship between belief and truth, and each excludes the other.”

We need not be scared of this truth, nor be anything other than respectful of others, such as the founders of JCoSS, who advocate pluralism. But failing to articulate the unbridgeable gulf between Orthodoxy and pluralism misrepresents both ideologies and creates false hope for a unified Jewry. In fact, I believe that it hinders cross-communal co-operation in those areas where it is possible.

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green United Synagogue

Last updated: 4:00pm, July 22 2009