A spirited debate quickly descended into a table-thumping row as a close friend and I discussed the effect of faith schools after the experience was played out in last week’s JC.
He regurgitated the conventional misgivings: a Jewish school promotes insularity, ignorance and a fear of mingling with the non-Jewish world from university to the workplace.
As a former Naima JPS and JFS student who happily blended in with non-Jewish friends at university and work, I found accusations of insularity to be patronising from a person who had been educated at a single-sex, educationally selective and pricy private school.
Many people mistakenly assume that going to a school like JFS (the largest Jewish school in Europe with over 2,000 students) segregates the student from other sectors of UK society. But they’re wrong.
There’s more to British society than faith — whether it’s mixing with the opposite sex, culture or class — and from my experience, JFS was a mixing pot of diversity.
I would never have met my loud, noisy friends in any other environment. Many of us excelled academically, others had a more creative flair, while a few budding entrepreneurs spent more time in detention for using school hours to sell knock-off clothing. After school, we often flocked to the nearby newsagent for sugar-hits and magazines, before running to catch our bus to respective family homes in Bishops Avenue (Billionaires’ Row), more middle-class Edgware or council flats in Hackney.
We may have all been Jewish — but we all came from different parts of UK society.
Our religious background wasn’t uniform. My friends’ bar and batmitzvahs were not all held at US synagogues — many were Reform and others took place at little-known house-converted Charedi shuls in Stamford Hill. I watched Zionist students proudly paint a blue star of David on their face during Yom Ha’atzmaut school celebrations, and then go on to sit next to classmates who would boycott the event until the Messiah duly arrived. I learned to be tolerant of people who came from different religious backgrounds.
Faith schools are nationally renowned for their academic excellence and religious education. As a Jewish student, learning about your religion, the state of Israel and historical factors from what led to its creation — from Herzl to the Holocaust — is nothing to be ashamed about. Classmates often find it easy to bond over Friday night dinners, their bubbe’s latest embarrassing antic and upcoming holiday to Eilat. There’s no reason to be apologetic about a shared culture in a stimulating Jewish environment.
Granted, I left school with minimal knowledge of other faiths, but I later learned about them via extra-curricular dance classes, books and university lectures. No doubt, I would not have been able to study the strong Jewish communal feeling with which I left school. I have never felt the need to explain or qualify my Judaism.
I went on to apply my school experience to a professional setting on graduating from Birmingham University and BPP Law School. My Jewish education did not hinder my ability to work with Eastern Europeans asking for benefits at legal pro bono centres; it did not hinder my ability to advise Arab shaykhahs shopping for the latest handbag brand at top fashion houses; it did not instil me with an overwhelming fear of being the only Jew, let alone woman, in a plummy boardroom at a top stockbroking firm. In fact, my diverse education taught me about tolerance.
Today I regularly speak to Jewish schools from Immanuel to Yavneh and Hasmonean. Hasmonean Girls have embarked — to the surprise of a number of people — on a number of interfaith projects, from participating in national charities to planting pots at (non-Jewish) community centres. Insularity does not feature on their curriculum.
While I have chosen to further my career at the JC, my Jewish schoolfriends have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, dentists, teachers and artists in the non-Jewish world. And I have been assured that their education and Jewish identity helped many to do so.