Convert challenge to Chief after JFS

Liberal, Masorti, Reform demand denominational parity with Orthodox

By Simon Rocker, December 23, 2009

The Board of Deputies faces an uphill battle to secure non-Orthodox support for a change in the law in order to override last week’s Supreme Court judgment on Jewish school admissions.

The Liberal, Masorti and Reform movements have all indicated that their support for any change to the Equality Bill, currently going through Parliament, will be conditional on their converts being accepted into mainstream Orthodox schools.

But since it was the initial refusal of JFS to accept the child of a Progressive convert that launched the recent legal battle, this condition would require a significant concession from the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the religious authority for JFS and several other Jewish schools.

Jonathan Arkush, the Board’s senior vice-president, confirmed this week that some weeks ago it had begun exploring a possible change in the law in anticipation of an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court.

By a five-four majority, judges upheld a Court of Appeal decision that Jewish schools can no longer choose pupils according to whether their parents are Jewish because this falls fouls of race relations law.

Mr Arkush said that the Board was considering “a simple amendment” which would effectively reverse the Supreme Court judgment. “Just as Protestant and Catholic schools may lawfully give preference to Protestant and Catholic pupils, so Jewish schools must have the same right to give preference to Jewish pupils,” he said.

Time for any immediate remedy is pressing because the Equality Bill —– one of the last major piece of legislation likely before the next election — is due to return to the House of Lords next month.

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform Movement, said: “We are in favour of legislation to remove the operation of the Race Relations Act for determining of Jewish status in any area. But we could only support such a change in the law, if, in the area of schools, there is no going back to the status quo ante. All state-funded Jewish schools should be open on an equal basis, to all Jewish children whose status is determined by any denomination under the auspices of the Board of Deputies.”

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Masorti senior rabbi, voiced similar sentiments, saying his movement would support a legal change “so long as we receive written undertakings that it will not be used simply to return school admission policies to the status quo ante”.

Masorti, too, “would favour a cross-communal policy for the purposes of access to state-funded schools, and to all the charitable services offered by the community, in which anyone is regarded as Jewish who is accepted as such by any synagogue body forming part of the Board of Deputies”.

Rabbi Danny Rich, Liberal chief executive, made clear that “Liberal Judaism would not support legislation that would enable the JFS to discriminate against our converts or on the basis of a child having a Jewish mother rather than father. We will not support moves to allow state-aided Jewish faith schools to discriminate against children on the basis of biology.”

Lord Sacks’s office said that there had been no development since his calls for consultation over a legal remedy last week.

However, the JC understands that talks took place on Tuesday between non-Orthodox leaders and United Synagogue leaders who sit on the communal consultative committee.

Rabbi Bayfield added: “We have a clear undertaking from the president of the Board of Deputies that they will not go ahead unless there was broad consensus.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission — which welcomed last week’s Supreme Court ruling — said that it was “seeking to strengthen religious freedom and protection” in the Equality Bill and other proposed laws. “However, we do believe the current Race Relations Act and future Equality Bill strike the correct balance,” a spokesman said, “and do not believe that an exemption should be included to permit faith schools to discriminate on grounds of ethnic origin.”

Last updated: 12:49pm, December 29 2009