Jewish school entry: how do they do it overseas?
As the community waits for the Supreme Court verdict on the JFS case, we examine the entrance criteria to Jewish schools in other countries
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Rachel Chosed listens to a story about the religious holidays in a Miami Jewish day school this September
The United States
Just as the US has no Chief Rabbi, it has no one uniform standard for entry to Jewish schools.
“We have variety and a lot of choice. I don’t think the one-size-fits-all standard would work in an American context,” says Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, an organisation of community day schools which are not affiliated with any branch of American Judaism.
Educational leaders say the admissions policy of JFS — and now under challenge in court — does effectively prevail in schools run under Orthodox auspices in America. In those schools — about 80 per cent of all US Jewish day schools — students are “invariably someone who has a Jewish mother or a mother who has converted under Orthodox auspices”, says Dr Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee.
It would be unusual, though, for the schools to require proof on paper that the student is Jewish, as JFS does.
“Usually these things are handled much more informally and sensitively — for example, a private call to the rabbi of the parents,” he said.
Some Orthodox schools also require families to be observant Jews, while others have a large percentage of students from non-observant homes.
But about 200 US Jewish schools are not under Orthodox control — they are independent or are affiliated with Conservative or Reform.
At the Schechter Schools, affiliated with Conservative Judaism, “traditionally we have had a position that the child must be Jewish”, says Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for the United Synagogue. “But as things have changed in the country, we have had to find ways to relate to them.”
The Schechter schools now will accept a child whose mother is not Jewish but whose family is considering converting the child.
At schools affiliated with Reform Judaism — similar to Liberal Judaism in Britain — children of a Jewish father are welcome. “For the most part, children are accepted if they have a Jewish parent and are being raised as Jews,” says Michael Zeldin, director of education at Hebrew Union College.
At Rodeph Sholom, for example, a coveted primary school in Manhattan, “We have families who are in same-sex marriages and mixed marriages, and all are welcome,” says Erin Korn, director of admissions. “For us, the underlying idea is that the family is raising their child Jewish.”
A key difference with the UK, says Dr Bayme, is that US Jewish schools are not state-funded as the constitutional separation of church and state bars public funding of religious schools, and there is no one authority over them, either Jewish or governmental.
“No one in the Orthodox world could legislate to non-Orthodox day schools. It would never happen that way.”
The admissions policy varies according to the level of state funding. Most primary schools are fully state-funded and therefore accept all children in their catchment area, regardless of faith and religion. This includes most state religious schools, although in some, the parents and headteachers unofficially check the religious observance of the prospective pupils’ families.
Independent schools are allowed to operate their own admission policy. But since many still receive some public funding, often as much as 60 per cent of their budgets, the national and local education administrations occasionally intervene, as they did this September when they forced religious schools to accept Ethiopian children they had rejected. The Supreme Court has also intervened to force strictly Orthodox girls’ schools to accept more Sephardi pupils.
Secular and national-religious high schools are usually owned by private corporations or educational networks. But while they are allowed to choose pupils according to their own guidelines, they are also subject to the rules of the local authorities.
Australia has more than 15 Jewish schools, mostly in Melbourne and Sydney, with about 10,000 children enrolled. Both cities have a school that was founded by the Progressive movement but nowadays have many students from Orthodox homes.
The reverse, however, does not always apply. Orthodox Jewish schools will not necessarily accept a child whose mother is a Progressive convert. And they can reject these children by law because it is not illegal to discriminate against somebody in Australia solely on the basis of religion (as opposed to race).
This principle was tested in 1999, when Perth’s Carmel School became embroiled in a legal case after the son of a Progressive convert was told he could not attend certain classes because he was not Jewish according to halachah.
The Goldberg case was dismissed by the Equal Opportunities Tribunal of Western Australia, which ruled that the school had “acted in good faith according to its own particular view of who is a Jew and what the doctrines of Judaism require of its adherents”.
In light of the JFS ruling, one senior Jewish official said: “Whether the exclusion of somebody on the basis of his or her mother’s conversion is a question of religion or race could be a very interesting case if someone decides to challenge it in Australia one day.”
The approach differs from school to school. In the majority, children of all denominations will be accepted provided they show proof they are Jewish, such as a copy of a ketubah or a letter signed by their shul rabbi.
However, says Rabbi Craig Kacev, general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, “Judaism is defined broadly”. So while most schools are Orthodox in character, Reform conversions are accepted for the purposes of admission.
A child of a non-Jewish mother or two non-Jewish parents can also be accepted, provided there is a place and they agree in writing to “adhere fully to its ethos and curricular requirements, formal and informal”. Those children have to do Hebrew, Jewish Studies and take part in davening.
This is in line with the Schools Act, which says it is illegal to exclude children on religious or ethnic grounds, but that schools can demand adherence to curricular requirements.
In Cape Town’s United Herzlia Schools, which runs on Orthodox lines, for example, there is no test of Jewishness. The school, says director of finance David Ginsberg, was founded in 1940 “on the ashes of the Holocaust by the community, which encompasses Reform and Orthodox”.
In addition, Cape Town is “a very liberal area. During apartheid, the school was open to all races.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, bursar of Torah Academy, a religious school in Johannesburg, says children must be halachically Jewish. If they are not known in the community, proof of their status is sought through their congregational rabbi. In the case of grey areas, the Beth Din will adjudicate.
Principal of Cape Town’s Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School, Natalie Altman, says the (religious) school considers each applicant on a case by case basis, “depending on whether we think they’ll fit into the school. As of now, we haven’t turned anyone away.”