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JCoSS pioneers new community education programme as alternative to GCSE religious studies

From sport to welfare, new course explores the institutions and activities that make up British Jewry

    When West Ham football club moved from Upton Park to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, did some of their Jewish following fall away?

    Is it really offensive for Spurs fans to call themselves “Yids”? Why has Israel’s Olympic medal tally been so low?

    Not the kind of questions you’d normally expect to be occupying students as part of their Jewish studies programme in school. 

    But sport is one of the topics in Limmudei Kehillah, “Community Education”, a new course launched last September by JCoSS as a non-academic alternative to religious studies GCSE.

    It has been devised and introduced by Laurie Rosenberg, a Jewish studies teacher at the cross-communal school with a long-track record in Jewish education, which has included stints as education director of the Board of Deputies and head of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School.

    “For a few years, I have tried to champion the cause of young people who are not going to go to university,” he said. “They may go on to further education or enter the world of work. But there are cohorts of young people being lost to the community when they don’t go to university. But they could become foot soldiers of the community if doors opened for them.”

    The focus of the course is British Jewry and Jewish life as served by its various institutions — from synagogues to sports clubs, from social service organisations to youth movements. 

    It covers engagement with Israel, tikkun olam (social action) and relations with the non-Jewish world. It moves from Brick Lane, heart of the old Jewish East End, to Canvey Island, the newest place of Chasidic settlement.

    “It’s opening their eyes to the Jewish world in a way that goes beyond the hard academics,” Mr Rosenberg continued. “Its aim is to give them an understanding of what it takes to create and sustain a community and how they can contribute to it.”

    With five lessons a fortnight, the course is taught over two years and has an inaugural group of 15 students. “They feel like pioneers and that’s quite exciting,” he said.

    Students enjoy a good deal of autonomy in choosing topics to study. “The fact that much of the learning is driven by themselves is a challenge because it is different from what they have been doing before. It is also a challenge because they are often working collaboratively on projects.” 

    At the moment, they are busy producing a recipe book which is not simply about the dishes; they have to tell the story behind their choice. Along the way, they can learn something about other Jewish communities, a lesson in Jewish history or geography. 

    “One child has chosen her grandma’s favourite chopped liver recipe from the East End, which has been handed down through the generations. Another has taken a recipe from relatives in Israel which she has talked about with them over Skype.”

    One module next year on the challenges of being Jewish in a non-Jewish environment will require them to create a presentation on a Jewish topic to be delivered in a non-Jewish school.

    The new course is validated by the educational charity Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Education Network, which came out of research done by the University of West England). Students who complete it will earn a level 2 “Certificate of Personal Effectiveness”.

    Although it is not recognised as an academic qualification, the work which students are expected to put into it would be equivalent to a grade B at GCSE, Mr Rosenberg said.

    Limmudei Kehillah he hopes will become a viable option for some students to the “dry” GCSE Jewish studies course. 

    “I would love it to become national,” he said. “Other schools and educational settings could easily adapt it — it would be my pleasure if they did. There’s no copyright.”
     

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