Family & Education

What I gain from my non-Jewish school

When it comes to the experience of interfaith diversity, a general school offers more than the Jewish 'bubble'


Two weeks ago, Leah Pennisi-Glaser wrote about the disadvantages of being a student stuck inside the so-called Jewish school bubble. She appeared highly critical of secular schools, especially for their ignorant stance and ineffective attitude towards dealing with antisemitism. Leah’s only clear argument for attending a non-Jewish institution was that you’d be far better prepared to deal with antisemitism in a secular society. However, she failed to grasp the true advantages of leaving the “bubble”.

I have been educated at non-Jewish schools since the age of three. My current school, Manchester Grammar, where I am sitting A-levels, used to be around 20 per cent Jewish, but now takes roughly 10 Jewish boys in a year group of 180.

My only formal Jewish tuition was an hour of cheder each week, from age four to 12, which was mainly spent playing football and eating crisps. Yet I am still able to lead Shabbat services, while some of my close friends from Jewish schools cannot read Hebrew, are shul shy or tell me they are simply “turned off from religion”. 

For me, Jewish education starts at home. My parents have always maintained the importance of leading an observant Jewish life. If parents are unwilling or unable to provide this themselves, a Jewish school is unlikely to make a huge impact.

Jewish schools may offer a good Jewish social scene; taking off school for chagim is never an issue, nor is missing lessons to get home in time for Shabbat; the food is kosher and one is unlikely to be the subject of antisemitic abuse (which fortunately I’ve never encountered at my school). 

However, from my own experience, I think these benefits are far outweighed by what I have gained by going to a secular school. An observant, kippah-wearing Jewish friend of mine made the move from a local Orthodox school to Manchester Grammar  three years ago and found the transition positive. “I’ve learnt so much about other cultures and have been welcomed into such a tolerant school community,” he told me. Credit must be given to my school, which is rightly proud to be a multicultural haven.

Going to a secular school is about embracing diversity — beating your Sikh friends in a religious studies Sikhism test; bringing your Muslim friends to the Jewish society to hear inspirational speakers; listening to contemporaries sharing their religious beliefs. I have friends at Jewish schools who have never spoken to a Buddhist, would hesitate to sit next to anyone wearing a burqa, or who most likely don’t know what the Indian festival of Holi represents. 

If we don’t interact with non-Jews, we will not be able to educate them about Judaism, and similarly, we will not learn from them. 
I know many Orthodox parents are keen to shelter their children from secularism and the temptation of marrying out; but if their children are brought up with a strong moral grounding at home, then they will have a good sense of what is right and wrong and make better life 

There was no better feeling than seeing my atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Jewish friends celebrate my barmitzvah five years ago, then come into school for the next week wearing a kippah! There are not many more special moments than being invited to a Diwali party at your Indian friend’s house, together with their extended family. 

I can almost guarantee that no student at a Jewish school will have had any of these experiences, while confined within the Jewish bubble. After all, where else will you see a Christian physics teacher so dedicated to co-ordinating the school’s Jewish assembly that he joyously recites Adon Olam and the Shema every Friday lunchtime?

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