Limmud: The JFS debate

By Leon Symons, December 30, 2009

The first public debate on the Supreme Court ruling that JFS broke the Race Relations Act has been held at the Limmud Conference and showed that the gulf dividing Anglo-Jewry over the issue might have closed a fraction.

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, declared that his organisation would be implacably opposed to any attempt by the Board of Deputies to try to engineer changes to the governments proposed Equality Bill that would return JFSs admissions policy to what it was before the court saga.

However, later in the debate he said: We remain committed to working with the Board, the Jewish Leadership Council and the United Synagogue to do the best for all Jews provided any one section does not find itself excluded.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, spiritual leader of Masorti, answering a question about whether converts should have an organization of their own, said: "Even more sinister in this case is whoever controls the gates to conversion and to marriage holds power and that is what led us to the levels of the courts.

The debate attracted more than 300 people, more than 10 per cent of the overall conference attendance at Warwick University.

Also on the panel were Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board, Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council and Clive Lawton, a co-founder of Limmud and former head teacher at Liverpool King David High School.

One questioner asked why there was no representative from the United Synagogue. Panel organiser Leslie Michaels explained that one US rabbi had been asked but had declined.

Mr Lawton, who said that the status of all Jewish children was known at the school he ran in Liverpool, derided a claim by Rabbi Rich that Liberal and Progressive Jews had suffered 50 years of discrimination by JFS.

"I remember going to a meeting in 1980 with the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Tony Bayfield to try to persuade a sceptical Progressive audience to create a new school. Most Progressive people 50 years ago thought Jewish schools had nothing to with them,” said Mr Lawton.

Jon Benjamin said other communal organisations including care and youth organisations had expressed concern about whether the ruling held any implications for them. " We know of organisations in the community who have had funding streams shut down because a local council took a dim view of the fact that they were providing services just for Jewish clients ", he said.

Mr Newmark supported him, saying: "Major community providers of welfare and youth services may no longer able to enjoy certain charitable status. Think what impact that could have in a time of credit crunch. These are not simple issues".

He also warned that Jewish children from homes where observance was low might be discriminated against by the new test of faith, introduced after the Court of Appeal judgement in June, which required points for synagogue attendance, among other things.

Mr Lawton and the two rabbis expressed dismay at the fact that the school and the community had become embroiled in such a situation and declared that it should not be allowed to happen again.

Last updated: 1:50pm, December 31 2009