Who is a Jew? The debate rages

Angry parents whose children are ineligible for Orthodox schools have spoken out, reigniting the debate over who is a Jew.

David Gryn, son of the late Reform leader, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, described the exclusion of children of Progressive converts from schools as an “evil”.

Another parent, who wished to be known as Karen, said that she was the daughter of a Reform convert and had attended JFS herself, but her son has been denied the chance. She said that such children were being treated “like someone with an infectious disease that no-one wants to go near”.

Under existing entry policies, Orthodox schools such as JFS have given priority to children considered halachically Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Only in the event of spare places could other children be admitted — but JFS has been heavily oversubscribed for many years.
Mr Gryn explained that his wife, Jane, went through a Liberal conversion after they married, but before having children. “It was her choice,” he said, “The process took over two years.”

They now have two boys at Akiva, a Progressive-run school in north
London, and the family moved from south London to be closer to it.

“In our heads, we already knew that JFS was a school our children wouldn’t be allowed to enter and the idea of a secondary Jewish education wasn’t paramount,” he said.

But many Akiva pupils move on to JFS, and their elder son, Isaac, now in his final primary year, has had good friends who have gone there.
“One day Isaac came home and said something to my wife along the lines of, ‘It’s a shame you are not a proper Jew.’ That was pretty painful,” he said.

“When my wife went through her conversion, there wasn’t an apartheid sign saying what kind of Jew are you becoming.

“When my son came home and felt less than equal, that’s the point when I felt something evil lurking. That evil needs to be taken away.

“The idea that there are Jewish people who are prepared to say someone is not equal to them betrays the values that I hope my children have.”
Describing entry polices which barred the children of non-Orthodox converts as “divisive, destructive and damaging”, he added: “It doesn’t look good to people outside the community.”

Karen attended both an Orthodox primary school (Solomon Wolfson, a forerunner of Sinai School) and JFS, even though her mother was a Progressive convert. “My grandmother and mum converted together to Reform when my mum was a teenager. All my other grandparents, including my mum’s dad, are halachically Jewish,” she said. 

Her son went to Clore Shalom, a pluralist Jewish school in Hertfordshire. “When it came to Year 6 it was very hard for him to understand that his friends would be going to JFS or Yavneh but he could not,” she said.

“He was only just 11 and wanted to be with his friends.  His Jewish primary education journey had come to an abrupt halt as no one wanted him.  That alone is hurtful for the parent, but what about the child?

“People say that they do not want their kids mixing with kids like mine, but what happens when it comes to university? Surely you are with all races and religions — and at an age when you are more likely to start a more serious type of relationship than at secondary school.”

She went on: “When JFS started to become oversubscribed, they needed a way to deal with this so they changed the rules only to admit children who have a Jewish mother. The problem is that even though you may have a Jewish mother, it does not mean you are a practising Jew. 

“Many people I know whose kids are at Yavneh and JFS etc, do nothing apart from going to shul twice a year.  The schools do not care, as long as you are in their eyes halachically Jewish.

“To me, the United Synagogue is picking and choosing what children they want in their schools. Instead of us all pulling together and living as one happy community in peace, the US are selecting who they want in their schools and discarding the rest.  It is an unfair and dangerous thing to do but until now they have got away with it.”

Ben Baginsky, 23, the chairman of the Liberal youth movement, LJY-Netzer, hoped that the court ruling declaring JFS’s entry policy unlawful, would in future open the doors of mainstream Orthodox schools to those like himself.

“My dad grew up Jewish in a United Synagogue, my mum grew up in Liverpool as a Catholic and converted to Judaism through the Liberal movement in 1976,” he said.

He, in fact, attended kindergarten at a United Synagogue in Watford before going to on to local primary and secondary schools. Although he did not apply to JFS, he would at least like to have had the option.
“The principle that people who identify as Jewish should be able to go to a Jewish school is one I agree with. It was a choice not open to me and I welcome the fact that it will be a choice for people in a similar situation to me,” he said.

Last updated: 2:12pm, July 10 2009