Last week marked 40 years since Rav Joseph Soloveitchik ‘the Rav’ taught his first women’s Gemara (Talmud) lesson at Stern College.
When the Rav had previously set up the Maimonides School in Boston, in 1937, he knew that ‘separate but equal’ wouldn’t give the girls an equal Jewish education, and so by design his school was fully co-educational in mixed gender classes with exactly the same curriculum for all.
This year the school celebrated its 80th anniversary, and in the meantime, in the USA and in Israel, Gemara has now become an accepted part of Jewish education for girls in both co-ed and in all girls’ Orthodox schools.
Last week also saw a Court of Appeal judgement, in respect of the Al-Hijrah school, a voluntary aided Muslim school in Birmingham, which upheld Ofsted’s view that segregated education leads to discrimination for both boys and girls. At the Al-Hijrah School boys and girls were segregated for all lessons and activities from the start of year 5 (age 9).
However, despite the rigid gender segregation, and some sexist books in the school library, Ofsted found that the curriculum taught to the boys and girls was identical.
Whilst many of the Orthodox Jewish schools, particularly those under the aegis of the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue, have an identical curriculum for girls and boys, there are a number of coeducational Orthodox Jewish primary and secondary schools that have different Jewish studies curriculum for girls and boys, with girls systematically being denied access to Mishna and Gemara (together, the Oral Law).
In the primary schools the pupils are generally segregated for Jewish studies only; at secondary, because the pupils are post bar and batmitzvah, there is complete segregation for all lessons and all activities.
Because the curriculum for the girls and boys was the same in this Muslim school, the judgement focussed attention on whether it was discriminatory for girls and boys to be educated separately. All three judges found that the school’s segregation policy “does not give due regard to the need to foster good relations between the genders, and means that girls do not have equal opportunities to develop confident relationships with boys and vice versa”.
The only female judge, Lady Justice Gloster, in her dissenting judgement upheld the claim that “the segregation at the school caused greater psychological harm to girl pupils because the female sex has the minority of power in society”.
She cited evidence of gender stereotyping from pupil’s work as well as the presence of misogynist books in the school library, for example ‘Islamic Family Guidelines’ by Aboo Ibraheem Abdul-Majeed Alee Hasan (1998) which included; “gives the husband the position of leadership over the family…The women have thus been commanded to obey their husbands and fulfil their domestic duties”.
Ultimately, in the UK, there is recognition that some parents prefer single gender schools for their children and there is an Equality Act caveat to permit schools to admit pupils of one gender only.
Consequentially, the easiest response to the judgement, already suggested by one of the Jewish schools, is simply to split into two separate schools, possibility even within in the same multi academy trust, and continuing exactly as before, segregating the pupils, and teaching different Jewish studies curriculum.
However, it is entirely reasonable for the DFE to expect schools to offer the same opportunities to girls and boys.
By continuing to deny the girls access to what is a seminal Jewish text does not recognise the value the girls have to the future of our community, as committed educated Jews, who are passionate about learning and teaching Torah.
The real issue is not segregation of girls and boys in schools, but rather that some of our girls and boys, attending the same school, are taught different Jewish studies curricula.
We should use the opportunity of this judgement against a Muslim school to reflect on why girls and boys are not offered the same educational opportunities in all our schools, and think about how quickly this can be resolved.
As a community we need to focus on what counts, because on that count, we are letting our girls down.
Eve Sacks is a trustee of JOFA UK and has co-led the New Jewish High School free school project.