Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation has temporarily stopped an unregistered Charedi school from using one of its buildings after BBC footage showed a teacher appearing to strike a child.
Essex Police have launched a child protection investigation and the local council has expressed “shock and concern”. But the synagogue board is pressing ahead with the planned lease of the building to a group of strictly orthodox Jews running the school in question, which is called Talmud Torah Kehal Chasidim.
On Monday, a BBC news report on unregistered schools included two incidents, filmed a week apart, showing a teacher apparently hitting and manhandling a pupil.
A few hours after the broadcast, an email from Kevin Leigh, described as SWHC’s “honorary legal adviser”, was sent to members, telling them that use of the building for home schooling “has been suspended for the time being while the matter is investigated”.
Praising the shul for taking action, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said he was “deeply disturbed” by the BBC footage.
“It should go without saying that the safety and well-being of our children is of the utmost importance and any dereliction of that responsibility is totally unacceptable.
“Any school which operates outside of the law and without regard for the well-being of their students is to be condemned in the strongest terms.”
But in his email, Mr Leigh also wrote: “It appears the BBC were filming for some time and there were only these two incidents”. He suggested “that the adult and child involved were the same on both occasions and are in fact a parent and son. One of the incidents appears to be after the home schooling has ended for the day.”
And Derek Silverstone, who chairs the coastal congregation, told the JC: “The planned school will go ahead. The idea is to treat this as an isolated incident. The overall project will proceed.”
The plan is for the Charedim to fund the building’s refurbishment, in return for the option of leasing the premises for their own use. There has been considerable opposition from the SWHC rank and file.
Communication among SWHC members seen by the JC reveals fears that a draft ten-year lease between SWHC and the Chassidim has been drawn up and could be finalised as soon as the end of this month.
In his email, Mr Leigh accused the BBC of “sensationalism” and of “spying”, which had been reported to the police.
An Essex Police spokesperson said a child protection investigation had been started at an unregistered school in Westcliff.
“We received reports on Tuesday January 30 with concerns about incidents at Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation on Monday January 8 and Tuesday January 16.
“In one of these incidents, it appears that a man raised his hand towards a boy’s head.
We are currently liaising with the facility and the safeguarding department at Southend Council. Inquiries are ongoing.”
James Courtenay, executive councillor for children and learning at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, said: “Like anyone who saw the report on BBC News, I was shocked and concerned to see footage of what appeared to be an adult at the school striking a child. The council is aware of the existence of the unregistered school featured in the news report and understand that the Department for Education, responsible for registering schools, has been in communication with them.”
The growing Chasidic community in Westcliff is one of a number of initiatives from strictly Orthodox groups looking to escape the housing shortage in Stamford Hill.
A pamphlet distributed in Stamford Hill promoting the Westcliff group includes reference to the Talmud Torah. It says “the devoted melamdim [teachers] devote their entire being to each child individually, in a smaller classroom with way more personalised attention, and the results are already clearly visible.”
Also in his email, Mr Leigh stated that “Shlomo Fink, who organises the parents and home schooling, has asked a specialist school adviser to look into the incidents and review them and give guidance for the future... [He] is really upset that what appears to be a very isolated couple of incidents should be considered as reflecting on the community generally and the Chasidim especially.
“He asked me to let members know he apologises for the embarrassment caused and will work hard to sort this out quickly.”
When the JC contacted Mr Fink, he confirmed his name. Told he was speaking to a reporter, he replied: “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong number”, before hanging up.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that we have been informed that the Charedi school based in Westcliff is not operated by the Belz community. We are happy to set the record straight.