It is fair to say that Jewish schools have taken a bit of a knock recently. The decision of the Department for Education to decline both applications for new Jewish free schools has worried many in the community. Even more significantly, relentless media focus on the overriding importance of integration in the schooling system has led some parents to question whether the huge uptake in Jewish schooling over recent decades has been the right thing to do after all.
Are we educating a generation of children in a manner that is too insular to cope with life in the “real world”? Perhaps exclusive Jewish schooling is, as some would argue, inherently incompatible with British values of tolerance and respect for all? Perhaps we need a complete rethink of our entire approach to faith-based education?
Questions like these are far from new, of course. But they are now surfacing with increasing frequency and are being voiced by parents who, until recently, may have assumed that the only possible bar to sending their child to the good Jewish school of their choice would have been a shortage of places.
So, with this in mind, it’s worth revisiting some of the reasons why the exponential growth of Jewish schools is in fact something to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.
The debate over segregation versus integration in terms of faith schooling is a prominent feature of educational policy debate in the modern world. But the good news for the Jewish community is that this is something we have been grappling with, in one form or another, for well over 150 years.
And, because of this history, of all faith-based school systems, Jewish schools may just be the ones with the best chance of getting the balance right in the 21st century.
In 1853, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, considered by many to be one of the father figures of contemporary Orthodox Judaism in the Western world, founded a new Jewish school in his home town of Frankfurt. In the first prospectus for the school, he set out the guiding principles upon which he envisaged it would be run:
“This school is based on the ancient and sacred principle of Judaism, saying that social wisdom and social life on the one hand, and religious wisdom and religious life on the other hand not only are not mutually exclusive but, on the contrary, condition, complete and fulfil each other, and only by cohering, uniting and merging most closely will they give birth to welfare and happiness, towards which we are bound to strive throughout our life in this world.”
The language used by Rabbi Hirsch in this passage suggests that he was all too aware of the type of concern raised recently by the National Secular Society, to the effect that, “[if children] are separated into religious groupings at such an early age, racism, suspicion of anyone ‘different’ and bigotry can all too easily develop.”
Yet, it is also clear that he fundamentally disagreed with the notion that segregation and integration are mutually incompatible in the context of Jewish faith-based schooling. On the contrary, he argued that ancient Jewish wisdom itself teaches the values upon which social integration can and should flourish, in a manner that is entirely compatible with traditional Jewish values.
Judaism has existed as a minority faith within countries and communities adhering to a different faith, or faiths, for the best part of two thousand years. It has ample resources to sustain itself in this situation without compromising on its own principles, yet simultaneously respecting those of the people around it.
Traditional halachic concepts such as darchei shalom (ways of peace), dina de’malchuta (the importance of the law of the land) and kevod malchut (respect for government), provide a suitable framework for teaching British values even in the most Orthodox of schools.
Clearly, the application of this in practice depends upon the particular school, or school-system, in question. And, as with all other areas of life, some do this better than others. There are unfortunately plenty of examples of those who get it wrong.
But to argue that faith schools per se, of any variety, lead to “racism, suspicion of anyone ‘different’ and bigotry” is patently false. On the contrary, Rabbi Hirsch’s fascinating prospectus makes it clear that the opportunity is there for Jewish schools to set an example for other faith communities in how to get this vital issue right.
Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community