Family & Education

Cross-communal education course is urgently needed for teenagers


I have a few confessions to make. I am not very good at practising Judaism. I don't attend shul as regularly as I should. I grew up in a traditional, if secular, family in a small Orthodox community in Newcastle. I did not have many Jewish friends when I was growing up. Despite all this, I am an immensely proud Jew.

Why is this? I don't blame my parents or even my cheder teachers. While I had an excellent secular education, Judaism is at the core of my identity.

Being a student of history, I have been truly inspired by a Jewish experience that goes far beyond the Holocaust and Israel. Our ancient heritage is the ultimate story of the triumph of the human spirit. We have a glorious history that spans 3,000 years. We are the spiritual descendants of prophets and kings.

Even though the majority of Britain's Jews live in large communities such as London and Manchester, many young Jews going to university are just as secular as I am. Like many of my generation, I lacked an adequate post-barmitzvah education in the basics of Judaism. I did not have access to the skills necessary for leading a meaningful Jewish life. I am sure many Jewish students can attest to feeling a little out of place bensching at their first Friday night dinner.

Assimilation is a very real concern. In tolerant 21st-century Britain, we are the victims of our own success. The only way to avert these trends is to instil a positive sense of Jewish identity - through history, through practice, through language and through attachment to Israel and our fellow Jews. All of these are perfectly compatible with British values. How can we remain Jewish if we don't know where we come from, who we are and where we are going? Or as Rabbi Hillel the Elder famously said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

This is too important a task to be left to Orthodox or Progressive movements in isolation

There are many synagogues, outreach programmes and youth movements who claim to do all of the above. The problem is this often occurs in a very sectarian manner. By the time many Jewish students arrive at university, they have already formed their own friendship circles. This can often lead to misunderstanding between Progressive and Orthodox Jews. On top of this, the current education system at many Jewish schools treats Jewish subjects as if they are entirely separate from secular ones rather than mutually reinforcing.

This is too important a task to be left to Orthodox or Progressive movements in isolation from one another. There is a need for a nationwide, holistic, extra-curricular Jewish programme. We need one that can provide Jewish religious and cultural literacy for students of all backgrounds, but especially for those who come from secular homes or mixed marriages.

Jews have always confidently engaged with the societies in which they have lived. They have given the world a system of ethics that has placed the utmost value on human flourishing. In 12th-century Iberia, Maimonides discussed Aristotelian philosophy with Christian and Islamic contemporaries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Spinozist metaphysics had an immeasurable impact on the European Enlightenment and helped fashion the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment).

As we all know, Jews in the modern age have performed wonderful achievements and discoveries in every academic and civic field. If Jews are going to reject Judaism, they should at least know what they are rejecting.

We have often overlooked the contributions of Jewish groups beyond the Ashkenazi mainstream, especially Sephardim, Mizrachim and the ultra-Orthodox. It is inevitable that the Charedim will be a substantial percentage of Anglo-Jewry at the middle of this century. It is the duty and responsibility of the next generation of British Jews to understand the diverse history and needs of this community, whether they are followers of the Ba'al Shem Tov or the Vilna Gaon.

This task of education will not be easy. It falls on our collective shoulders. In our own way, we are all teachers and students. Education will be necessary in ensuring the continued vibrancy of future generations of British Jews. In the words of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "To defend a land you need an army, but to defend civilisation you need education."

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