Britain’s Jewish community is proud to have moved in a single generation from a situation in which 25 per cent of Jewish children attended Jewish day schools to one in which 60 per cent do so. No other diaspora Jewish community has been so dramatically transformed. This is in the spirit of the command of the Shema, Veshinantam levanekha: “you shall teach your children”, understood by the sages as an imperative to give all Jewish children a Jewish education. And we in the United Synagogue are justifiably proud of our role in building great Jewish schools.
The US and other communities under the Chief Rabbinate are unshakably committed to inclusive Orthodoxy. We are open to all Jews, observant and non-observant, who are willing to respect the religious principles on which our synagogues and schools are based.
Considerable confusion exists about Orthodox schools generally, JFS specifically, and this has been heightened by the recent court case. Certain facts should therefore be made clear. The first is that the religious identity and policy of JFS has not changed in recent years.
JFS has always been an Orthodox school. Founded in 1732, as the Talmud Torah of the Great Synagogue — one of the five founding synagogues of the United Synagogue — it has always been governed by Orthodox Jewish law. Its Jewish instruction has always and solely been that of Orthodox Judaism. It has been run with adherence to Orthodox practice, including kashrut, observance of Shabbat and the festivals and so on. In 1958, it adopted the US as its religious foundation body.
In keeping with the principle of inclusive Orthodoxy, JFS has always admitted children whose families are members of non-Orthodox synagogues, or even of no synagogue, providing that they are halachically Jewish.
For much of its long history, the question of admitting children who were not halachically Jewish — whose mothers were converted under non-Orthodox auspices — did not arise. The school was undersubscribed. Then and now, even prior to the court case, such children could be admitted if there were vacant places.
What has changed is not admission criteria, or Orthodox attitudes to non-halachic conversions, but the simple fact that JFS is no longer under- but oversubscribed (a tribute to its excellence). Under those circumstances, it would be absurd to favour children who are not halachically Jewish over those who are: absurd because JFS was, is, and will continue to be an Orthodox school.
All of us within the United Synagogue take with full seriousness the sense of disappointment on the part of children who find themselves excluded because of a non-halachic conversion. But nowhere in the world are non-halachic conversions recognised as valid by Orthodox authorities. The non-Orthodox world displays similar distinctions and every movement practises some form of exclusion. The only form of conversion universally recognised is an Orthodox one.
Ironically, the court ruling is an open invitation for our schools to be less, rather than more inclusive, since it insists that the criteria of admission be based on religious practice.
The community should therefore be assured that all of us — the Chief Rabbi, dayanim and rabbanim, United Synagogue lay leaders, school governors and headteachers — have decided that the principle of inclusivity remains central to our philosophy of Judaism. We will therefore set the religious practice bar as low as possible, with the aim of excluding as few as possible.
Since the start of the JFS case, I and my co-trustees have consistently measured our actions against the core principles of inclusive Orthodoxy, as guided by the Chief Rabbi. We support the JFS attempt to have the Court of Appeal judgment overturned in the Supreme Court both because we believe that there is a strong legal basis for a successful outcome, and because it is warranted on the principles we uphold.
Our schools do not just teach an Orthodox curriculum. Their primary purpose is to help those who are Jewish understand, learn about and follow their faith. Their ethos must reflect the highest standards of Jewish faith and practice, including respect for everyone, principled tolerance, and commitment to active citizenship. We are proud that our schools embody those principles.