Ex-pupils give Jewish faith schools mixed marks
Studying Jewishly: some young adults say a Jewish education left them unprepared for life in the wider world; others say it spurred them on
These are good times for Jewish schools. An estimated 66 per cent of Jewish children in Britain are educated at institutions dedicated to providing Judaism and Jewish studies as a significant part of their curriculum.
At least 6,000 pupils attend mainstream Jewish secondary schools in the London area alone. The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, hailed the “trebling” of school places as one of the landmark achievements during his time in office.
Only this month, three new schools opened — two in London and one in Leeds. Good times, indeed.
But former pupils are split over whether a Jewish education is adequate preparation for life in a multicultural, secular society, with some feeling that it creates difficulties in forging relationships outside the Jewish community.
Londoner Danni Allen has experienced both Jewish and non-Jewish education. She transferred from the non-Jewish Bushey Meads School to the sixth-form at JFS — Europe’s largest Jewish school — to increase her circle of Jewish friends.
Michael Goodman: "I was not prepared for the onslaught when Israel/ Palestine was discussed"
Now aged 22, and a receptionist for a car company, she feels that the move was not a wise one. “A Jewish school just doesn’t prepare you for the wider world,” she said.
“A lot of my friends, who have been to a Jewish school from nursery until they’re 18 find it hard to have common ground with people who aren’t Jewish. I found it a lot easier to adapt to university than they did.”
Birmingham University law student Samuel Farage said he is grateful that the Jewish school he attended — King David High School in Liverpool — boasted a significant number of non-Jewish students.
“It was definitely a positive”, he said: “It allowed me to understand how to interact with different cultures — something that many of my peers who went to exclusively Jewish schools may have lacked.”
Dentist Michael Goodman, who was the only Jew on his course at Sheffield University, said attending JFS did not give him the informed perspective he needed to defend Israel on campus.
“I was not prepared for the inevitable onslaught from politically minded friends at university. When the Israel- Palestine issue was discussed, I came across as biased, narrow-minded and lacking empathy,” he said.
The comments from ex-pupils are echoed by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead synagogue, who has concerns over the concept of faith schools.
“Whatever the good intentions, the effect is to segregate children. It’s not healthy for them or for us as part of wider society,” he said.
Not that businessman Jerome Marks would agree. The former King Solomon High School head boy believes that “going to a Jewish school actually made me more eager to learn about other religions and cultures when I got to university. It never held me back”.
He adds that Jewish schools offer their pupils a unique sense of belonging. “You have something in common with every single person,” he said. “There’s a shared understanding of Jewish festivals; Israel. You just feel at home.”
He attributes the fact that he remains religiously observant to his educational grounding at the Essex school.
Similarly passionate about a Jewish education is Eve Shamash, who attended the UK’s largest Jewish primary school, the Michael Sobell Sinai School, and went on to JFS.
The 22-year-old recruitment worker said there was a cultural understanding between students which could not be replicated in a non-Jewish environment.
“I used to easily take my friends home for Friday night and share the family atmosphere. That friendship, I just don’t think I would have got at a non-Jewish school.”
Twenty-four-year-old Emma Stone, puts her choice of career as a UJIA fundraiser down to the fact that she went to a Jewish school.
While at JFS, she set up the school Israel society, and spent Shabbat dinners with teachers.
“I gained a love of communal involvement at school,” she said.
“Attending JFS was where I first felt proud to be Jewish. But for that experience, I would never have found the love for what I now do.”
If Ms Stone goes on to become a leader in the community, JFS will have fulfilled an important part of its remit, according to headteacher Jonathan Miller. “We are proud of the leadership skills we teach students so they can make a positive impact on the Jewish and wider community,” he said.
Rachel Fink, headteacher of the Orthodox Hasmonean Girls school, rejects any notion that the her pupils are handicapped in their dealings with the world outside Anglo-Jewry. They are instilled with “an understanding of why it is important to commit to both their community and wider British life,” she said.
“Rather than compromising educational standards, going to a Jewish school raises them.”