In a modest terrace house in the Charedi neighbourhood of south Tottenham, MP David Lammy held a special Chanukah event, hosted by community activist Shmuel Davidson.
It was a cold day, but our hearts were warm. The simple surroundings were permeated with the power of solidarity and friendship. Mr Lammy had come straight from the grief and sombreness of the Grenfell Tower commemoration. He spoke of wanting to take the spirit of community in that room and bottling it forever.
“Our country needs this togetherness,” he said.
For many present, it has been a particularly tumultuous year. People of disparate backgrounds, of all faiths and none, marked what Chanukah stands for; the freedom to live by our beliefs. One speaker choked over her tears, the atmosphere a balm for her soul.
My own heart also found a bit of sorely needed comfort that day.
Working as an advocate for the wellbeing of Orthodox Jews, what a year it has been. We’ve stood by, helpless to stop what many regard as the escalating offensive on Jewish education. For decades, Jewish schools have flourished in a free and tolerant Britain. They have long been exemplars, markedly for producing young people with outstanding moral, civic and social values.
No more. In a radical shift since the Trojan Horse controversy – the alleged Islamist takeover of schools in Birmingham - the definition of good values has been redrawn. The concept of British values has been taken to mean secular values, which every school in the land must inculcate into children.
If this has overtones of Soviet ideology, then mark the chilling and unambiguous words of Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman. This country must use “compulsory education to make sure children acquire a deep understanding of and respect for the British values”, even where, she warns, ‘this is in tension with parental wishes or with community norms”.
She is speaking directly to us. Our offence is threatening community cohesion, and “failing to prepare children for life in modern Britain”.
During this difficult year, school after school has been called out for not teaching children about different sexual identities and for failing to give children the opportunity to explore different faiths. Schools may no longer run separate divisions for boys and girls. Schools are questioned about boys who are “made to” wear kippahs. Ofsted has been prepared to fight in the courts to override the deeply held beliefs of entire parent bodies.
Why did David Lammy’s Chanukah event give comfort? Because it reminded me that we are not what threatens community cohesion. Our faith is a force for good in our neighbourhoods. The children leaving our “inadequate” schools never attack, even they are often attacked by, children from the neighbouring “outstanding” schools. The state should be not be withdrawing our religious freedoms.
In the Prime Minister’s Christmas message, she reminded the nation to “take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practise your faith free from question or fear”. We should “reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety”. Will Mrs May be as good as her word and defend the freedom of Jewish schools?
Chaya Spitz is chief executive of Interlink, the Orthodox Jewish Voluntary Action group