Family & Education

How Jesus found a place at JFS

The origins of Christianity is one new topic in a revamped Jewish studies course


The one thing you might not expect in a Jewish studies textbook in an Orthodox Jewish school is a headshot of Jesus. 

But the origins of Christianity is one of the units in the Jewish history component of the new JS curriculum which was introduced last year by the country’s largest Jewish school, JFS.

“We strongly promote the idea that we must respect other religions and beliefs as well as those people who do not have a religious belief,” the book explains. “One way that this is achieved is to learn about those religions.”

It is not only the birth of Christianity that is new on the syllabus, but the whole three-year course on Jewish history, taken from years seven to nine. 

The man responsible for the new curriculum, deputy headteacher Daniel Marcus, says the changes do not imply criticism of what was being taught before. But, as time moves on, so do the needs of children and “after a number of years, it is always good and refreshing to look at something”.

Remarkably, the JS team was ready to start rolling out the new programme at the start of the last academic year, in less than a year since his arrival at JFS in January 2017. A former lawyer, and product of Kenton United Synagogue who spent two years at a Modern Orthodox Israeli yeshivah, Mr Marcus switched to teaching, starting at Immanuel College and spending 11 years at Yavneh College.

“My heart and soul are in this,” he says, with an enthusiasm for the subject that is apparent the minute he speaks.

Every JS curriculum rests on a tripod of “three main elements — passion, skills and knowledge” — an idea he learned from Immanuel’s founding director of Jewish Studies, Paul Shaviv. “You have to look at what the balance is, depending on your school.”

So while intent on retaining the school’s emphasis on morality and Torah values such as kindness or respect for others — “it was vital to me,  however else we refreshed or developed it, never to lose sight of that” —  he wanted to shift the balance to see  “if we could slightly develop the skills section”.

If you look at the school’s overall first-year curriculum plan for all subjects, from art to Spanish, you’ll notice that Jewish Studies takes up no fewer than a quarter of its 40 pages. That indicates not only the seriousness attached to the subject but also the complexity of devising a programme for a mixed band of students from religiously diverse homes.

Around 25 to 30 per cent have come from non-Jewish primaries with variable cheder education. But there is a range of abilities also among the alumni of Jewish primaries.

Some Jewish primary children may need to brush up their Hebrew. “Even if some of them learned to read in reception, if they are not reading a siddur at home as part of their lives, it’s something that may be ignored in years five and six. So we then have to pick that up,” he says.

Reading is essential if children are to have “a sense of comfort, of feeling at home in their own religion”.

However religious or not pupils grow up to be, he wants them to be proficient enough so that when they become parents themselves and start taking their own children to synagogue, when their children ask them to find the place in the siddur, they should be able to do so.

“My grandfather who knew nothing, could say the Shema,” he recalls, “Whenever I was in shul with him, when they finally got to the Shema, he was so excited. ‘Oh, I can do that,’ he’d say. Imagine our children can do that for ten prayers. The excitement my grandfather had for the Shema I want these kids to have for Yishtabach, Ashrei. That’s the plan.”

The 300-strong year group are divided into 12 Jewish Studies sets, broadly representing three different ability bands. All follow the same first-year curriculum, but the top track, Iyun (“Depth”) will study in more detail.

Everyone entering the school starts with a four-part course in basic Jewish knowledge covering the festivals, Shabbat, kashrut and prayer. “People come from differing skills and knowledge sets. I wanted to make sure by the end of the first year, there’s a level playing field of knowledge. So once we have that, we can all move on at the same kind of pace.”

Iyun students may whizz through the foundation course in a week or two, while lower groups may need a term or more to complete it. 

The principal curriculum change is the introduction of “a little bit more text” to improve student’s powers of textual analysis. Everyone now grapples with some Talmud. “Torah has to be first hand,” he says. “All students study and engage with texts at a level that suits them.”

In the first year, students study five Mishnah passages about prayer, a topic he chose because at this time of life they will be going to shul to prepare for bar- or batmitzvah. They will explore concepts such as kavannah,” intention” — asking questions such as does visiting an old-age home weekly as part of a Duke of Edinburgh award programme count as a mitzvah (because it is done for a particular goal).

The second year follows up with introductory Gemara, the Aramaic commentary on the Mishnah. “Rather than do what was inflicted on me when I was at school — opening  a big masechet [a traditional volume of Talmud] on day one  — I do ten mini-sugyot [topics] of Gemara.” Each topic focuses on a few lines of text, introducing a particular concept and the rabbinic debate around it.

Whereas students may cover less Chumash than previously, they will emerge, Mr Marcus hopes, with better textual skills.

The new Jewish history element  years, he feels, is critical. “You can’t have pride in who you are if you don’t know where you have come from,” he says. “The three-year course starts with the destruction of the Second Temple and goes up to the establishment of the state of Israel”. So when children in future take the year-nine trip to Israel, they will know more of the history behind the sites they visit.

As well as the emergence of Christianity in an era of rising messianism, the history course later covers the birth of Islam. 

They also look at Islam in greater depth for their GCSE religious studies, which now requires study of a second faith for a quarter of the course. But he would prefer greater flexibility. “These kids don’t need to know Islam in depth,” he says, “they need to have a taste of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism etc. My dream GCSE would be one where you do your own religion in depth, because kids need that, but you have a flavour of world religions.

Israel education should be based on knowledge rather than advocacy

Sixth-form Jewish studies have also been revamped, by teacher Rafi Jacobs. Under the theme of “Connections”, these aim to make pupils aware of Jewish options beyond school. “If your Judaism is confined to school, then when you leave school, do you leave Judaism too,” Mr Marcus asks.

“It addresses everything from Israel to sexuality, social action issues, feminism. We spend six weeks or so on each topic. We will start with a look at relevant Jewish sources, then expand into a debate or social action-type element and this will connect them to the future of their Judaism.”

A debate on feminism, led by one of the outside speakers brought in to enrich the sixth-form programme, Elissa Bayer, who has combined an observant lifestyle with a career, “carried on 45 minutes over time,” he recalls. “She told me, if that’s the quality of children, the future’s in great hands.”

The approach to Israel in the sixth-form has also moved on from its previous advocacy approach, which was concerned to prime students with debating points to refute anti-Zionists on campus. Now there is more emphasis on ensuring they understand Judaism’s historical links with Israel and the achievements of creating a modern Jewish state, while not ignoring the challenges confronting it.

“It should be based on some historical knowledge and pride rather than adversarial advocacy — which I don’t think will help our children,” he argues.

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