The deep wrongs that lie at heart of JFS case

The unjust exclusion of children from a Jewish school must not happen again, writes Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg


By Jonathan Wittenberg, July 16, 2009
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The entrance to JFS  in London — but who is allowed to get in?

The entrance to JFS in London — but who is allowed to get in?

There is something wrong with the state of Judaism in this country.
The world exists because of the breath of children studying Torah, proclaims the Talmud. How, then, have we turned education into an instrument of exclusion? No one should have to go to law to seek the right to gain a Jewish education for a Jewish child at a state-funded Jewish school.

In the anxiety to go to the Lords, or even eventually to Europe, to seek the overturning of the decision of the Court of Appeal because it allegedly taints Judaism with the charge of racism and because it renders illegal the criteria for admissions currently employed by most Jewish schools, we must not forget the wrongs which provoked this case in the first place.

They are threefold. The first concerns the process of conversion. In all three instances which originally brought the dispute into the public domain, the mother of the children rejected by JFS was a convert to Judaism. The Office of the Chief Rabbi, to which the school refers such matters, refused to confirm their Jewish status.

There are clear denominational differences with regard to conversion. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why, when the due requirements of Jewish law, comprising sincere commitment, a serious process of learning and engagement, circumcision, immersion and appearance before a Bet Din have been observed, a person should not then be considered Jewish across the whole community. Such a resolution would be highly desirable.

But in two of the cases, the issue had nothing to do with “non-Orthodox” conversions. The procedures were duly followed under the auspices of the Israeli rabbinate. Helen Sagal converted through the Lod Rabbinical Court; her papers were subsequently endorsed by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. But the London Beth Din refused to recognise her Jewish status on the grounds that she no longer lived an Orthodox lifestyle. The Israeli authorities were even asked to hand over jurisdiction to London, seemingly part of an attempt to have the conversion annulled.

Kate Lightman converted through the Bet Din of Kiryat Gat. She does live an Orthodox lifestyle, with her husband to whom she was married by an Orthodox rabbi in New York, and their three children. But because the latter is a Cohen, and, according to rabbinic law a Cohen and a convert shouldn’t marry, although the children are in all opinions kosher Jews, she was evidently deemed to have been insincere at the time of her conversion and their daughter was rejected, on the grounds that she wasn’t Jewish.

This new idea, that Jewish status may be retrospectively withdrawn, is widely held to have no serious precedent in the history of the application of Jewish law. It is a breach of established halachah and it causes great pain. I recently spoke to a couple who were in floods of tears lest their children be robbed, for no reason, of the heritage they had laboured so lovingly to give them.

The rejection of these children is profoundly unjust.

The second issue concerns access to Jewish schools. It is strange to proclaim that education is the pride of Judaism, while at the same time precluding Jewish children from obtaining it. “The crown of Torah is available to all Israel… let whoever wishes come and take it,” teaches Maimonides. The awareness that the knowledge and practice of Torah is the essence of our faith and the secret of our continuity has guided Jewish educators and philanthropists across all denominations.

The Talmud movingly describes the endeavour under the harsh conditions of Roman rule to make literacy accessible not only to the wealthy but also to the poor. To make access to learning the victim of sectarian strife contradicts Judaism’s essential teaching that learning is the heritage of all — a principle in which we have led the world. Our schools are the treasure of the community and should be safeguarded by us for the benefit of everyone. That is how countless Jewish schools operate outside this country. This is the spirit in which JFS was founded. To deny admission to children seeking a Jewish education, especially when there are no other options available in this country at the secondary level, is a betrayal of what should be our core values.
The third issue concerns the structure of our community. Too much of it is territorial and sectarian; too little is shared.

Of course there’s a place for ideological arguments. Energetic debate about genuine issues is the hallmark of vibrant Judaism, as the Mishnah states; “Differences of opinion for the sake of heaven will ultimately endure”. Pluralism is simply the reality in today’s world of constant access to competing ideas. It teaches us to seek truth and define our values.

But core activities like education and care of the vulnerable must be safeguarded by us all for the benefit of all. Irrespective of denomination, we should all take responsibility for them, pay for them and ensure their provision extends to all.

When JCoSS opens in September 2010 there will be options for all. But JCoSS must not be considered just a convenient haven for pupils other schools refuse, allowing them to continue as before. Each school must have its own vital ethos, Orthodox, pluralist or Progressive. But, in my ideal, this should not be controlled by admissions policies rooted in the denominationally fraught territory of status, or bolstered by the denial that other authentic Jewish options exist.

It won’t do simply to try to roll back the Court of Appeal’s judgment and return, relieved, to the status quo ante.

There are underlying wrongs which we must address. We will be a stronger and better community for so doing.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Masorti senior rabbi

    Last updated: 2:55pm, July 20 2009