There must be close to a couple of thousand non-Jewish children in Jewish schools in England and Scotland today — a small, but not insignificant, minority.
They are there by accident — accident in the sense in that the schools were not set up to take children from other faiths, simply that they are located in areas where there are no longer enough Jews to fill them.
With one exception. Mosaic Primary, South London’s only Jewish school, opened six years ago on the basis that it would be viable only if it recruited children from outside the Jewish community as well. Its success has now encouraged a group in Brighton to look at the possibility of a Jewish school on the South Coast, too.
Non-Jewish parents may opt for a Jewish school for various reasons. It might conveniently be just down the road. It may enjoy a good academic reputation. They might prefer a faith school, even if not of their own faith, because they believe it will provide a solid foundation of moral values.
But some may feel a more personal connection, as two Muslim parents with children at Birmingham’s King David Primary School explained in a session at the recent Limmud Festival.
King David is unique among Jewish schools in having a Muslim majority, who comprise two-thirds of its pupils. Jewish children make up 15 to 20 per cent.
Tracy Tharissa Maria Pater grew up on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, which has the oldest synagogue in the Americas, Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel, built in 1732. Raised as Protestant, she converted to Islam when she was 19. The hijab-wearing mother told Limmud her children’s father had Jewish grandparents and she chose King David because she wanted them to “know their heritage”.
While Zakir Uddin’s family came from Pakistan, his grandparents were from the Pashtun people in Afghanistan. Among the Pashtun there is a longstanding tradition they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. “I was always interested in this and I heard from my elders in my village when I used to go back home,” he said.
When he took a DNA test, it showed he had a genetic marker that is particularly common among Cohanim. Keen to get in touch with his “Israelite roots”, he is even learning Hebrew himself in a local synagogue.
When Rabbi Lior Kaminestky, of Birmingham’s Central Synagogue, who comes from Jerusalem, first saw the school, he thought “Wow, what’s going on”. Non-Jewish children were happily singing Yigdal and Adon Olam. ”I was fascinated,” he said.
Showing Limmud a video clip of King David children collectively reciting the Shema, he alluded to yemot Hamashiach, “the days of the Messiah”, evoking Isaiah’s famous vision of the Temple becoming a house of prayer for all peoples.
Rabbi Kaminetsky, whose daughter Lia attends the school, believes British Jewry could generally be more active in promoting the attractions of Jewish schools.
“I believe that in smaller Jewish communities ,where there are not enough Jews to fill in the available spaces in the Jewish school, it is our best interest to find ways to prioritise non-Jewish parents who may be descendants of Jews or affiliated with Judaism, as they may help us to protect the school’s Jewish ethos,” he told me after Limmud.
There are more non-Jewish families, he believes, “who want to be inspired by Judaism, recognise Judaism as part of their heritage and may wish to send their children to a Jewish school for ideological reasons.”
It would be interesting to know the impact of Jewish schooling on non-Jewish families. Do they emerge more favourable towards Jews and Judaism, say, than non-Jewish people who did not attend a Jewish school?
And should schools be doing more for them? For example, offering sessions to parents who might want to know more about the Judaism their children experience in school?
King David and Mosaic provide a model for smaller Jewish communities and the fact that a school in Brighton is now being talked about shows others are prepared to take it up.
Certainly, without the willingness of non-Jewish parents to entrust their children to Jewish schools, some schools would simply be forced to close. These families are the unsung allies of Jewish education.