School entry rules 'fiasco'

By Simon Rocker, September 18, 2009
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New school entry rules based on religious practice were slammed as a “fiasco” this week by the chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, Rabbi Yitzchak Shochet.

He hit out as synagogues struggled with floods of inquiries from parents trying to ensure their children complied with the new admissions system.

Most Jewish schools have been forced to rewrite their rules after the Appeal Court ruled in June that they could no longer take children simply on the basis of whether their parents were Jewish.

Instead, schools want proof of synagogue attendance and other observance for entry next September, with parents having to present a certificate of religious practice to the school signed by a rabbi or synagogue official as evidence.

“Every shul, rabbi, administrator has been struggling during the past week or two in coping with the new admissions policy,” Rabbi Schochet told synagogue delegates at the US Council. “Those responsible for bringing this upon the kehillah (community) will have to stare God square in the face on Rosh Hashanah and reconcile their consciences.

“It is a fiasco of the highest order and we certainly at the RCUS will be voicing vociferously our clear disappointment at the system as it stands. Let no judge in the land assume that this system is the least bit tenable.”

An appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling will be heard by the Supreme Court next month, with the United Synagogue estimating further costs of £50,000-£100,000 on top of the £150,000 it has spent so far defending the old admission policy of its schools.

Meanwhile, with the new rules in force, parents of school applicants requiring proof of synagogue attendance have been asked by the US to register with their synagogue in advance.

The new arrangements so exasperated one synagogue leader that he fired off a letter of protest to JFS, the largest US school. Calling the new system “ blighted”, Gary Simon, chairman of Woodside Park, wrote that it had “little credibility” with his members and the decision to implement it “at breakneck speed [was] misguided and avoidable”.

Another chairman, Anthony Arnold, of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, said: “It has made a tremendous amount of extra work, so we have had to bring in a couple of volunteers to help register everyone.”

Almost 200 children had been registered there so far, he said, with children’s services last Shabbat “mobbed — we’ve never seen so many. We have as many as 300 children. Most parents apply for three or four schools, so there could be 1,200 forms we have to complete.”

Because writing is forbidden on Shabbat and festivals, synagogues have had to devise alternative registration methods. An office member of Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue said that registered children “are being issued with personalised cards when they come to shul. On the day, there will be a ballot box and they will post the card into it. ”

Families who are away over the festivals have been advised to arrange for some proof of attendance at the synagogue they visit.

Rabbi Shochet said some families had turned up at his synagogue last week but when they found that did not count towards the required attendance for school, had promptly taken their children back home. Another parent, he said, who lived far from the synagogue but always walked on Yom Kippur, had now told the synagogue that this year she would have to drive in order to bring her child along.

To complicate matters for parents, schools differ on entry standards. To get priority for a place at JFS next year, children will need just three religious practice points, but for Moriah and Wolfson Hillel primaries, they will need four.

JFS makes no distinction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogue attendance, but Wolfson Hillel gives extra points for going to a United Synagogue.

There are also differences over whether belonging to a synagogue can be used as an entry criterion, with some schools adopting it but the United Synagogue believing it legally unsafe.

Last updated: 10:06am, September 18 2009