In 2005, Polack’s, the Jewish boarding house at Clifton College, Bristol closed. A product of Victorian liberalism, it opened in 1878 to enable the sons of the Anglo-Jewish gentry to enjoy a public school education while still being able to practise their faith.
But the name Polack’s lives on, as does Jewish life at Clifton. The school maintains a Jewish centre for pupils. The Polack’s House Educational Trust offers scholarships to Jewish boys and girls from the age of 11 of up to half the fees (now £38,000 a year for upper-school boarders). And a year ago the college engaged Lauren Chiren to run its Jewish enrichment programme.
Ms Chiren, who is originally from Glasgow, knows the college well since she is a parent of a pupil herself and has lived in Bristol for a number of years. Saul started at the college’s nursery in 2009. “It was the only school that had a Jewish connection. That to me was very important. They actively supported Jewish children who came in; that was the reason I chose Clifton.”
She has enjoyed a varied career — helping the Home Office roll out electronic monitoring for offenders, working as a sports therapist and, most recently, setting up a business to coach individuals and organisations on dealing with the menopause.
A couple of years ago, she took a year out. “When I had an executive role, I’d barely seen my son for a few years. I wanted to be at home to be around him while deciding my next career move,” she said.
She started doing some voluntary work with the Jewish pupils at Clifton’s preparatory school. “I did a lunchtime club on Friday for Jewish activities — how to write their name in Hebrew, learning the alphabet, learning about the festivals. It was a fun way to increase their Jewish identity and give them a bit more understanding what the religion was about.”
Next year, she took up a more permanent role. “I offered to start taking over Friday night dinners, do a bit more pastoral work with the pupils and be available for any Yomtovim,” she said.
Weekday and Shabbat services take place in the Polack’s Centre and “we have our own activities during whichever chagim fall during term.”
The highlight is Friday night prayers and dinner. “We started them earlier in the evening so that we can integrate the pre-school with the upper school pupils, which makes it more of a family feel.
“We have that shared bond and we can discuss anything that’s related to what’s going on in school, or Israel, or the world. They aren’t rushing back to their houses; they are quite happy hanging out with each other.”
Clifton’s Jewish pupils are a cosmopolitan crew: apart from day pupils from Bristol and London boarders, others come from as far afield as Russia, USA and Mexico. They have increased from a couple of dozen last year to around 30 this term, the highest number she can recall since Saul started.
From time to time, local rabbis drop in. Ms Chiren also liaises with the chaplain to raise awareness about Judaism more generally throughout the college. When she was asked to deliver a sermon in chapel last year, “it coincided with Purim so I shared the lessons from the Megillah.”
So far, the experience has been “amazing,” she said. “We have some fun together and we learn together. I love being there — I feel like I have an extended family. It’s like having a Jewish mum there, a home from home.”