JFS: What's next?

By Simon Rocker, July 2, 2009


The Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks this week called for community-wide support to challenge a court judgment which he said has effectively branded Judaism as “racist”.

Writing in today’s JC, he said: “We must join together” to contest last week’s Court of Appeal ruling that, under race relations law, Jewish schools cannot award places on the basis of whether the child’s mother is Jewish.

The judgment, which will force many Jewish schools to rewrite entry policies, was also condemned by the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, as an “outrage” and a “disaster”.

The case was brought by the father of a boy who was rejected in 2007 by Britain’s largest Jewish school, the Orthodox-run JFS, because his mother was a non-Orthodox convert and not Jewish according to the Chief Rabbi’s Office.

JFS has said it will appeal against the ruling to the House of Lords. The Board of Deputies is understood to be considering involvement in the legal action.

Sir Jonathan said this week: “We extend Jewish education to Jews, that is, those born of a Jewish mother or those who have converted according to the standards of the religious authority to which the school belongs…
“Now, an English court has declared this rule racist and… is, in effect, declaring Judaism racist.”

The Board has called a meeting of Jewish school leaders next Wednesday to assess the wider effect of the ruling. The court has yet to determine when it will take effect or whether JFS must now accept the boy.

But Jon Benjamin, the Board’s chief executive, said that he “did not expect there to be an impact” on school places this September.
Synagogue membership and entry to Jewish old age homes will not, he said, be affected by the court’s decision.

Simon Hochhauser, president of the United Synagogue, the foundation body of JFS, said: “It is important to exhaust every legal avenue to ensure the judgment is overturned.” The US has already run up a £150,000 legal bill.

He added: “This is not a parochial issue. The principles that underlie this case… concern the whole community and rise above inter-denominational differences. We’d like the wider community to work alongside the US.”

Rabbi Bayfield said that although the Reform movement deplored the entry policies of JFS, which discriminated against non-Orthodox converts, it would support the United Synagogue “100 per cent” as the court’s ruling was “a major interference in our rights as Jews”.

So far, only the Liberal movement has welcomed the court’s
intervention. The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues — to which the boy and his father belong — avoided direct comment on the judgment. Masorti’s senior rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, said: “We deplore the injustice and deeply appreciate the pain and anguish which led to the initial case and the subsequent appeal.

“We believe that the whole community shares the responsibility of making Jewish education available to those families who seek it for their children.” If the court decision stands, it means that Jewish schools will have to determine entry through practice or belief — such as attending synagogue — rather than parental lineage.

The new Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS) will probably have to scrap its intention to give priority to children “not considered halachically Jewish” as this too could be seen as an ethnic, rather than religious, test.

But religious leaders warned that any rule changes could make it more difficult for less religious children to gain places.

Dr Hochhauser said: “We will need to design religious practice tests, bearing in mind that any particular rule will have a major effect on the character of the school. If the bar is set high, we would end up excluding many children whom we would like to educate.”

One consequence of last week’s ruling is that the children of non-Orthodox converts denied places at schools this year could now sue for damages.

Last updated: 11:29am, July 3 2009