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Coming face to face with Yavneh’s head

    In the middle of it all: headteacher Spencer Lewis with pupils from Yavneh College
    In the middle of it all: headteacher Spencer Lewis with pupils from Yavneh College

    Did you know that, in Hebrew, "Yavneh" means "he will build"? A fitting name, then, for the school that just keeps growing.

    When it was founded in 2006, the landscape of Jewish education was very different. Hasmonean and King Solomon aside, JFS held the market on mainstream schooling in the community - and, indeed, opposed the proposal for a new north-London school.

    The fear, however ironic it now may seem, was that the school would lead to a surplus of places.

    Well, things certainly change. And now, almost 10 years later and with JCoSS having also joined the roster of secondary schools in the community, Jewish education is not only thriving but is heavily oversubscribed.

    A large part of this is thanks to Yavneh College - a school that, in a decade, has not only grown to become the best performing non-selective school for A-level results in the country, but has also helped make Borehamwood a central hub for Jewish life. In recent years, this has happened with Spencer Lewis at the helm.

    ‘In shaping a pupil’s Jewish identity, school is essential’

    Meeting Mr Lewis at the school's campus in Borehamwood, you would be forgiven for assuming he has been there from the beginning, so embedded is he in its micro- and macro-management.

    His office is a stone's throw from the school's entrance and cafeteria, meaning he often intermingles with Yavneh's student body. The frequency by which he does this is evident from the pupils' ease in his presence.

    In fact, the Edgware-born head took the position relatively recently, in 2013, leaving his previous role as head of King Solomon High and stepping into the assumedly daunting shoes of the much-loved founding headteacher, Dr Dena Coleman.

    Upsettingly, the events that surrounded his succession were mired by the fact that Dr Coleman died suddenly only weeks before she was due to retire, after contracting bacterial meningitis. Surely he felt pressure, taking on the role in such circumstances?

    "Look, whenever you take on a new school, a new headship, there are going to be challenges," the 47-year-old says. "But everyone was welcoming, and I had already visited Yavneh many times before and had worked with and admired my predecessor for a long time. We're a family of Jewish schools, and we work together."

    While Mr Lewis jumped into the top job at Yavneh, he had previously risen through the ranks, starting from the bottom as a teacher at King Solomon.

    Having studied at Hasmonean, he completed his undergraduate and postgraduate degree at Jews' College London, before spending a year in Israel on a senior educators' programme. He joined King Solomon in 1994 and stayed there for almost 20 years - rising from Jewish Studies teacher to head of the department and, eventually, to deputy head and headteacher.

    The Redbridge community, he says, holds a special place in his heart. "I loved the school, I loved Redbridge. It's a very special community and I think we achieved some great things there."

    It seems prescient that, just as the Jewish population is now reportedly shifting from Redbridge to Borehamwood, so too did the head of King Solomon. The school is known for now having a minority of Jewish students, while Yavneh's waiting list is vast.

    "The number of Jewish people in Essex has been decreasing," he says. "It wasn't something that just happened overnight. It was a difficult decision to move as I didn't want people to think I was abandoning it, but it was time to have a new challenge and work with a new community.

    "But I am sure that, with stability and time, people will once again consider King Solomon as a genuine option."

    As the head of a Jewish school, you can be sure that the question of "what is a Jewish education?" will often crop up. This is an even more pressing query for a Jewish Studies teacher. So how important does he think the school is in equipping a student with the tools to live a Jewish life?

    "In shaping a pupil's Jewish identity, school is essential," Mr Lewis says. "That includes formal and informal education. We have daily, compulsory tefillah for all pupils as I want every student to leave with the skills of prayer.

    "Teaching Ivrit is also immensely important, while our informal education is something we are very proud of. Every day, pupils have a lesson in something that isn't a lesson."

    He add his hopes "to improve our Jewish programming. We are absolutely and openly a modern Orthodox school, so I want to make this side of learning an even more attractive option for the more observant side of our community.

    "But a school can't do everything. And it is family that, without doubt, has the biggest influence on a pupil's Judaism."

    The head celebrates the fact that, despite negative press in mainstream media, faith schools are faring well today. According to him, "a faith school is very special. It's both a lifestyle and a commitment."

    In turn, judgements passed by people who criticise such schools as insular are, he says, both "extremely harmful and a great shame".

    "On what evidence do we promote insularity?" he asks. "Our pupils go to university with self-confidence and knowledge in their culture."

    As for the future, he remains focused on maintaining Yavneh's high standards, while at the same time continuing to "work with young people, see them develop, and see the skills that they learn come into fruition".

    At the same time, he waits to hear word as to whether the school will be allowed to expand its operations to include a primary section. An application was submitted to the Department for Education by the Yavneh College Trust last month.

    If all goes to plan, you can rest assured that "he will build".

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