UK schools' system is out of step

If British educators wish to heal the divisions in Jewish schooling, they should look abroad.

By Paul Shaviv, March 4, 2010

The Jewish school system, both in Europe and in North America, currently faces a series of unprecedented challenges. Social and political attitudes towards faith-based schools are changing; the economic crisis has affected both public and (certainly) private Jewish schools; and attitudes within the Jewish community itself are changing, too.

Almost everywhere, Jewish schools are denominational foundations. In the UK, they are overwhelmingly (although no longer exclusively) Orthodox, or at least nominally Orthodox. In north America, the Orthodox and Conservative movements both have established networks of schools; the Reform movement has fewer.

Yet that framework stands in opposition to the prevailing mood.

We live in an age of "inclusion". Anything that smacks of exclusivity or exclusion, is unacceptable in wider society. Even though we sometimes like to consider ourselves a "special case" - for valid historical reasons - in today's society there is a definite limit to how far any group, including Jews, can claim exemption or "special terms".

But "inclusion" also informs the language and values of the younger Jewish community. They have little tolerance for a communal atmosphere of "firewalls", exclusions and bans. It has to be noticed that the movements that have made real impact on young people in recent years - Aish, Chabad, Limmud - all present themselves as appealing "to all Jews".

Admissions policies are therefore the first item that needs courageous revision. In north America, "community schools", offering a pluralistic admissions policy and "delivery platform", are the fastest growing sector in the Jewish school system. Few schools altogether (including Orthodox schools) ask for documentation of Jewish status on admission. There are "non-halachic" Jews in almost every Jewish school. Their status is a matter for their families, their rabbis, and their synagogues. But, if they want Jewish education, the community is not going to deny it to them.

The argument that this "encourages intermarriage" (a peculiarly British argument) assumes that teenagers cannot understand these issues. Experience shows that they understand it very well.

It also assumes that most marriages are made in high school. Experience shows that they are not. (Does the United Synagogue require proof of Jewish status before any teen can attend a youth service? Or before anyone - teen or otherwise - can attend a main service in a shul? If not, does that mean that going to shul "encourages intermarriage"? )

These issues have been real in every Jewish community for more than two centuries. Wise rabbis find ways of dealing with them. What you cannot do is impose mechanisms of self-isolation (the survival strategy of the intensively Orthodox community) on the general Jewish population, and expect them to work or to be popular.

The second area of necessary change is the quality and quantity of education delivered once the child is in school. Feedback and debate in the UK in the aftermath of the JFS case suggests that many parents see "socialisation", rather than education, as the main purpose of the Jewish school system. In our present situation, more than ever, we need to give our young people real knowledge, beginning with Torah knowledge, knowledge of Ivrit, of Jewish history, Jewish ideas and of Israel - the list is endless.

How many hours of classroom time each week needs to be given to impart that desired level of knowledge? Five? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Even the least Orthodox schools in most parts of the world offer between a quarter and a third of class time as Judaic Studies, often accommodated by a longer school day.

A traditional Jewish interpretation of Psalm 119:126 offers support for radical action when faced with crisis. It can be read: "A time to act for the Lord - we must reinterpret the Torah!" (I heard this for the first time many years ago from the late Dayan Moshe Swift - hardly a voice of reform). The schools must survive and thrive. Our community must pull together for our long-term good. We need unity, not division – and we need to take a long, hard, mature look at our necessary strategies for survival.

Paul Shaviv is the director of education of TanenbaumCHAT, the community high school of the Toronto Jewish community. He has recently published 'The Jewish High School: A Complete Management Guide', available in the UK from Joseph's Bookstore, London NW11

Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010


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