While children are supposed to learn about religion for an hour or so a week throughout most of their time at school, curricular expectations are often belied by practical constraints.
The recently published Bloom report, which highlighted the general need for “faith literacy” in the UK, said that religious education had been left as “the Cinderella” of the classroom.
“There is a national shortage of RE teachers,” said Anna Silver, education officer of the Board of Deputies. “Many who are teaching it are not trained at all, so they just don’t have the subject knowledge.”
The Board, at least, is trying to do its part in supporting teachers by increasing access to resources on Judaism.
It has not only revamped the content of its portable Jewish Living Experience Exhibition but it has also increased the number of copies from one to five, which are based now in Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow and the north-east as well as London.
The refreshed exhibition went on display for the first time since the pandemic at Blackburn Cathedral earlier this year. “Where it goes, I offer teacher training,” Ms Silver said. “There’s a new teacher’s guide which I email to teachers before they come and ideas for activities after they have seen the exhibition.”
The number of banners in the exhibition has been expanded from 12 to 15 with new sections on Israel, Chanukah and dress, while the images and text have been revised.
“It is aimed particularly at upper-primary and lower-secondary pupils. All the wording is child-friendly,” she explained. “But we are trying to use it for lots of different events and audiences, not just schools.”
One new venue will be Child’s Hill Library in Cricklewood, London. It was booked by the Kisharon Noé School “who wanted it for their non-Jewish staff. But they will now have it in the library and they have invited other schools and church groups. Members of Kisharon will act as guides for visitors.”
As well as the retractable banners, the exhibition also comes with eight boxes of objects ranging from a fake chuppah and model doughnuts to stencils of Hebrew letters so children can have a go writing Hebrew.
Ms Silver said she was particularly keen to include something about Israel because “I felt so much antisemitism in this country, especially on campuses, is connected with Israel.
“We wanted to get across that Israel has been important to Jews for 3,000 years and there are biblical links. And to show that Israel is not just a war-zone but a beautiful country that is lovely for holidays and which has provided the world with amazing technological inventions.”
She also highlights the introductory banner. “It was headed ‘Who is a Jew?’ But I didn’t like the title. I’ve called it ‘What do Jews look like’?” It demonstrates to visitors as soon as they walk in that Jews do not conform to a single image and “there is no such thing as a stereotypical Jew”.
A volunteer guide at the Board of Deputies' Jewish Living Experience Exhibition at Blackburn Cathedral earlier this year
Apart from the re-edited content, the exhibition has been made more convenient and cheaper to deliver. “The banners are smaller and lighter. It used to have to be shlepped around in a van — but now it can be fitted into a car, so it is easier to transport.”
Meanwhile, work continues on the preparation of a new digital resource for teaching about antisemitism and Judaism, supported by a generous donation from the American ADL. It will be given free to all secondary schools and the hope is that it will be ready for release early next year.