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Simon Rocker

Wanted: new Charedi leaders

In the clash between the state and the Charedi system, one thing seems clear: Strictly Orthodox leaders are struggling to make the case for their schools, says Simon Rocker

    Someone recently collared me over kiddush and asked why the JC was not writing about the problem of education in Charedi schools. I was surprised as I believe we have covered the subject extensively and sometimes I have had to stop myself from writing more. Over the past two or three years, I have consumed more Ofsted reports than I care to remember - including another only last week criticising one of the largest Chasidic schools in Stamford Hill.

    The travails of Charedi schools at the hands of Ofsted continue to be a major headache for them. While it may affect only one section of British Jewry, it raises a wider question: how far does a liberal democracy with a commitment to egalitarianism make allowance for religious diversity.

    In the clash between the state and the Charedi system, one thing seems clear: Strictly Orthodox leaders are struggling to make the case for their schools.

    Far from alleviating the pressure on Charedi schools, the latest proposals from the Department for Education would tighten the screw even more.

    The meetings with ministers, the delegations to department officials - for all their lobbying, Charedi leaders have had little to show for it.

    The Charedi community either needs fresh faces to plead their cause or fresh ideas - perhaps both.

    There are two main areas of contention. Firstly, the question whether schools should be required to talk about same-sex relationships as part of the “British values” agenda to teach respect for different groups of people. Secondly, the failure of a number of schools - primarily in Stamford Hill - to teach an adequate secular education, in Ofsted’s view.

    London’s Charedi rabbinate has said teaching about same-sex relationships represents a “red line” it will not cross. A few weeks ago rabbis from Charedi communities across the country met in Nottingham to agree a common position.

    The latest draft guidelines from the DfE suggest that avoiding the subject is simply not an option. A recent report from a House of Lords committee on citizenship also made it clear that the inspection services could not be expected to turn a blind eye.

    The Board of Deputies has come up with one possible compromise. Strictly Orthodox  schools should not be compelled to teach about sexual relationships that contradict their religious ethos - but staff could be trained to deal with LGBT issues and, if necessary, refer pupils to an organisation like Keshet UK.

    Even that would be a big step for some schools. But it is the kind of compromise the education authorities could be persuaded to take on board. Whether the “Nottingham” group can produce an alternative that will satisfy the state and take the heat off Charedi schools remains open to question.

    As far as secular education goes, the situation varies across the Charedi spectrum - from children who may take A-levels and even a degree to boys who attend unregistered yeshivot from soon after barmitzvah where secular tuition is minimal or non-existent.

    The days of unregulated yeshivot are surely numbered, even though it may take a few years to pass the necessary legislation to bring them under state scrutiny. While the more conservative sections of Stamford Hill may continue to resist, pragmatic rabbis must realise that with some concessions towards teaching basics like English and maths, they may still be able to preserve a traditional yeshivah education for most of the week. It is not as if the state is looking to impose the full national curriculum on independent schools.

    Charedi leaders also need to consider whether to go it alone or try to enlist the support of the wider Jewish community. The fact that the recent Lords report cited Chief Rabbi Mirvis in a number of places shows his office still carries influence.

    In a recent interview in Hamodia, Yaakov Grosskopf, the chairman of the Strictly Orthodox charity, the Interlink Foundation, remarked, “We have been too content to talk to ourselves, and have failed to speak to wider audiences.”

    Perhaps outreach should start with the broader Jewish community. It hardly could have helped when Charedi rabbis lined up to announce a ban on JW3 because of LGBT activities there. While their intervention may have deprived a few children from Orthodox schools of a trip to the JW3 skating rink last winter, I doubt whether Charedim who already frequent JW3 will pay much heed to the rabbis. The effect was more likely counterproductive in alienating middle-of-the-road Jews from the Charedi community.

    The DfE’s latest proposed guidelines are not cast in stone, they are out for consultation and therefore open to emendation. But it will take far more skilful advocacy from the Charedi community than its leadership has so far demonstrated.

     

     

     

     

     

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