I'm not Jewish, can I go to a Jewish school?

May 12, 2011

Question: Our synagogue has been approached by a non-Jewish family who want their child to go Shabbat services in order to qualify for entry to the local Jewish school. The school rules stipulate only that children have to attend services a certain number of times a year, not whether they are Jewish. What should we do?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Well what can you do? I do not see how you can bar anyone from attending your services, especially since non-Jews regularly attend synagogue services as close friends or associates at bar- and batmitzvahs.

If you are asking why the school stipulates synagogue attendance as an entry criterion, as opposed to Jewish identity, the problem is how does one identify a Jew? The Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations have different criteria in deciding this question, which means that some children whom the Orthodox would not consider Jewish would be considered Jewish by the non-Orthodox. Whose view then should the school take into account when looking at an application?

The status quo until recently was that schools used the narrower Orthodox definition but this was successfully challenged two years ago in the High Court, with the result that it is no longer legal to include or exclude children based on religious identity.

The only criterion now available to a faith school in determining admissions is religious practice. This, in itself, is rather complicated as religious practice can be defined very broadly to include the full range of religious observance or more narrowly, such as sporadic synagogue attendance.

Many schools chose the narrower definition, setting the bar as low as possible so as not to exclude any Jewish child from receiving a Jewish education. But some could argue the bar has been set too low, opening the way for non-Jews to gain entry by disingenuously attending the requisite amount of synagogue services without any intention of embracing the Jewish way of life.

This is why my colleague Rabbi Dr Michael Harris and I proposed doing away with the religious practice test and replacing it with an agreement by the schools to admit any pupil deemed Jewish by the authorities of any Jewish denomination. This would guarantee that all Jewish children would have equal access to places at Jewish schools and it would avoid the expense, hassle and fiction of a religious practice test that at best is open to ridicule and at worst is open to the type of abuse you describe.

Accepting our proposal would require some bold and fresh thinking on the part of the Orthodox leadership. Sadly, no one took up our challenge, which is why your synagogue finds itself in the uncomfortable situation it does.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

This is a question that, at first glance, seems fit for the Purim edition of the Jewish Chronicle but, sadly, is based on the astonishing mess into which the community has become mired. Essentially, JFS refused entry to a child with a born-Jewish father and converted-Jewish mother that the school held not to be Jewish by the standards of its religious authority, the Chief Rabbi. The parents protested, the school refused to reconsider and so the matter went to law, eventually reaching the Supreme Court, which ruled that the school was guilty of discrimination.

What was significant was not that JFS lost its case, but that matters should have been taken that far. Instead, two other options were open to the school and its religious authority. One was to fly the flag for Jewish inclusivism and say that the child clearly had - at the very least - a Jewish heritage and Jewishly committed parents, and so it would be delighted to accept anyone in that situation. Another option was to avoid personal reflections and point out that JFS was not a Beth Din but a state-funded school, that it was about education not status, that its task was purely to teach Jewish values and knowledge, and so it should admit the child.

The Supreme Court ruled that admission to faith schools under English law have to be based on religious rather than racial criteria, and that judging a child on its mother's blood-line, as JFS did, transgressed this. Although the ruling was criticised for interfering with internal Jewish practices, some rabbis have privately welcomed it because it means that Jews who would have previously gone to Jewish schools without ever entering a synagogue now have to prove their religious credentials, and so it has boosted shul attendance.

As for your non-Jews: hopefully, visitors have always been welcome at services - why not? - and they should continue to be so.

It is up to educational bodies to decide whether this alone makes their child eligible for a school place, or whether others factors affect their request, not for you to pre-empt their judgment and bar the doors.

Of course, there is also the view that all state schools, including Jewish ones, should admit pupils from a wide range of religious backgrounds anyway, and thereby both promote social cohesion and better prepare the children for a multi-faith society.

Last updated: 11:29am, May 12 2011