Family & Education

The teacher who keeps learning about Jewish education

As one of the first people to gain a PhD in Jewish education, Dr Helena Miller has been at the forefront of the community's schooling for decades - and she isn't finished yet


If there were a Who's Who of Jewish education in this country, few people would feature higher than Helena Miller.

After all, not many educators have made as significant an impact on the landscape of teaching and learning in this community as she has done.

A brief CV scan proves just that, charting a career that includes training teachers at Leo Baeck College, becoming one of the first ever people to complete a doctorate in Jewish education, co-chairing Limmud, and playing a leading role in setting up the UK's first pluralist secondary school, JCoSS in Hertfordshire.

Not bad for a person who, in her own words, "had very little Jewish knowledge until I was a young adult" - and, as a child, quit Hebrew classes at Finchley United Synagogue after a year-and-a-half "because I hated it", she says.

Speaking from the Camden offices of UJIA, where she works as director of research and evaluation, Dr Miller says her achievements are "down to the support of some amazing colleagues" - and a long-standing belief that "you should always try things".

One of the greatest myths about Jewish schools is that young people are isolated

It is no surprise, then, that she is still stomping new ground.

Last year, the 59-year-old, who lives in Muswell Hill, was named the first female senior editor of the international Journal of Jewish Education - a distinguished appointment that, she confesses, "was just far too tempting to say no to".

And today, she is four years into the most ambitious and extensive survey of Jewish schooling ever undertaken in this country. But more on that later.

Born in north-west London into a "family that was traditional but not particularly observant", Dr Miller's early education was secular.

She attended Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden Suburb, before gaining her certificate in education at Goldsmiths. From there, she went to the Institute of Education to complete an advanced diploma in education and curriculum studies, before training as an art teacher and working in non-Jewish primary schools in Ealing.

Her involvement with the community did gradually develop, thanks to her and her husband Steve's youth work with the Reform Movement. In the 1980s, they ran shul clubs, youth schemes and summer camps.

But it was not until Limmud that her Jewish identity was fully formed.

"The first year that Limmud started, my husband tried to persuade me that we should go," she remembers. "But I had just started teaching and thought it sounded too much like my day job, so I said 'no'. He managed to persuade me to go in its second year, and by the third year he was running it. We have now become a part of it."

She adds: "Limmud taught me that Judaism doesn't have to be pigeon-holed into denominations, and that there was a whole world out there of Jewish learning that was accessible.

"I had already begun my journey of Jewish learning, but Limmud gave me the opportunity to meet the kinds of people that were really influential in helping to expand my Jewish identity."

From then, the expansion was rapid. Having completed her Masters a year after her son Arieh was born in the early 1990s, a new challenge beckoned.

"I decided to do a doctorate," she says. "It was in Jewish education, which was very rare at the time. There were just two of us in the country who had PhDs in Jewish education, and there still aren't that many now.

"Now, I can't imagine how I ever did it with a full-time job. I do a lot of supervising for people who are doing Masters and doctorates. They have so many other responsibilities in their lives. I have a huge amount of respect for anybody who juggles work, family and their studies."

For her, it is only natural that educators want to keep studying - especially those inside the community.

"Judaism lends itself well to further study, I think, because we are people of the book," she says. "Learning is in the DNA of Judaism, it's one of the most central things. Then, if you match that with the professional development that teachers take, it is a natural fit. I meet teachers all the time who are passionate about learning."

In 2001, her contribution to Jewish learning kicked up a notch, thanks to her part in setting up the Jewish Community Secondary School, the first Jewish secondary school that welcomed pupils of all denominations, although it would be another nine years before the school opened its doors to the public.

"When my son left Akiva Primary School to go to JFS, it just felt wrong to me that some of his friends were not able to continue on into Jewish schools," she says. "It felt like there should be more choice, so we sent out a survey to several thousand families and asked them what they were looking for."

She is emphatic that JCoSS was not founded to stamp out its fellow Jewish schools: "I am very clear that this is not because I don't like what Jewish schools are doing," she says. "I am the biggest advocate of Jewish schools in this country. We've just given parents a choice and broadened their options."

She regrets wider society's misconceptions about faith education.

"One of the greatest myths about Jewish schools is that young people are isolated," she says. "But all indications show that their British identity is actually strengthened. This is a testament to the breadth of our schools."

This claim is not just anecdotal. In 2011, Dr Miller launched the Jewish Lives Project - otherwise labelled the "Jewish 7 Up" - which was funded by the Pears Foundation.

Since then, she has been surveying the lives of more than 1,000 families who entered their children into Jewish schools at the age of 11, checking in on them every two years during their school careers.

She is currently in phase two, and has already produced surprising findings.

Most surprising is that the children she revisited in Year Nine have a stronger sense of their British identity than they did at the age of 11 - disproving the notion that faith schools lead to alienation. Moreover, she found that this patriotism was not at the expense of their Jewish identity.

She hopes to continue her research for as long as possible, using it to help Jewish education evolve and thrive in this country.

"It takes a community to raise a child," she says, "so you have to start off by understanding the community. Research is vital."

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