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We need to invest in post-school study, too

If you want a decent Jewish education, you have to invest in it. A school without educational materials is like a theatre without a props department.

    Students at a women's seminary seen studying outdoors at Kibbutz Migdal Oz, on June 7, 2015. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90
    Students at a women's seminary seen studying outdoors at Kibbutz Migdal Oz, on June 7, 2015. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90

    Although the Jewish Leadership Council reduced its spending last year, one area of its work enjoyed a significant increase. The allocation to its educational division, Partnerships for Jewish Schools (Pajes), went up to £955,000 in 2016, from £790,000 the previous year and £583,000 the year before that; the JLC now devotes a third of its budget to Pajes.

    It is a sign of the council’s commitment to education. Over the past two or three decades, British Jewry has enjoyed an unprecedented boom in new schools. But schools are only as good as what is taught in them and opening a building is only a start.

    If you want a decent Jewish education, you have to invest in it. The rising spend on Pajes recognises the importance of teacher training and curriculum development. A school without educational materials is like a theatre without a props department.

    Schools are clearly close to the heart of the new JLC chairman, Jonathan Goldstein, a former chairman of Pajes who oversaw the redevelopment of the schools campus in Redbridge.

    In his JLC election address, he criticised the lack of modern Jewish and Israeli history being taught in Jewish secondary schools. Schools may run Israel tours, celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and organise other informal Israel-orientated activity but children often remain hazy about such seminal events as the Six-Day War.

    Pajes is now at work on plans to introduce a Jewish history curriculum into secondary schools. With that and other projects, such as another to improve Hebrew literacy, spending on education may rise even further.

    The JLC leader’s intervention suggests a new focus on the content of day-school education. We are perhaps only at the beginning of a community-wide discussion on what precisely Jewish education should consist of.

    If parents were polled on whether they consider it more important for their children to read and understand the siddur or an Israeli newspaper, I imagine the majority would say the former. In an ideal world, children who have gone from Jewish nursery to secondary school should be linguistically competent to handle both.

    But given the constraints of curriculum time and sometimes a shortage of qualified teachers, schools are constantly having to make choices.

    For schools where children come from homes with similar standards of Jewish observance, it should in theory be easier to create a Jewish syllabus. But schools often have to cope with children from different levels of practice and knowledge, including some for whom Jewish studies are simply the greens they are compelled to eat in order to consume the main dish.

    Although some, such as the historian Bernard Wasserstein in his pessimistic study, Vanishing Diaspora, have cast doubt on the long-term effectiveness of faith schools, mainstream British Jewish leaders have vested great hope in them. But we should all be looking at what goes on after school, too.

    The majority of children from observant Orthodox homes, Charedi or modern, follow school with at least a year in yeshivah or seminary. They are exposed to an intensive high-level course of study and a form of education that is done for its own sake without the carrot of an exam certificate or qualification.

    But what about the many from middle-of-the-road traditional, Progressive or secular families? While gap years in Israel include opportunities for learning, the cost, along with university tuition fees, has conspired to reduce their popularity.

    A divide is therefore opening up within the Jewish community between those receiving some kind of higher Jewish education and those who are not. And yet research has suggested that these types of educational experiences can have the most impact of all.

    Even if there is no simple answer, we should not rest content with the status quo. One option could be to introduce more short-term immersive Jewish study programmes, such as summer schools, before, during or after university, here as well as abroad.

    But Jewish schools can play their part, too, by at least encouraging an interest in advanced Jewish learning. Sixth forms could offer “taster” courses to provide an incentive for further study. With the merciful abolition of compulsory A-S levels, our over-examined children may have a little more breathing space in their lower sixth year.

    Sixth forms should also broaden the scope of Jewish studies, offering choice — from rabbinic texts to modern novels, from Middle Eastern to East European Jewish history, from religious philosophy to film.

    If individual schools lack sufficient teaching resources on their own to provide variety, they may be able to cover it through partnerships with other organisations or other schools.

    GCSE Jewish studies and sixth-form discussion groups are not enough to prepare children for the intellectual challenges university may confront them with. The message to schools: aim higher.

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