Family & Education

What our Jewish education system can learn from the Amish

We need to make sure our children emerge with a love of our traditions, says the head of PaJeS


Amish children ride their push scooters on a road near Paradise, PA, November 01, 2011. The Amish people are known for their simple way of living, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

I recently returned from Israel where I attended a rather unique conference for leaders in Jewish education.  UnitEd, an initiative of the Ministry of the Diaspora to support Jewish education around the world, hosted a retreat for 12 educational worldwide leaders to consider the key challenges facing Jewish schools globally.

It was interesting to discover the commonality of challenge among the different countries, whether it was a stand-alone school in Prague or the hundreds of Jewish day schools across the United States.  Unsurprisingly, key concerns included the recruitment, and retention, of talented teachers and the severe financial challenge facing communities across the world.

However, the core of our concerns was the changing attitudes towards Judaism among our youth.

When considering successful outcomes, it is often easy to point towards exam results and even the engagement of students in the classroom. However, and especially with regards to religious education, the true measure of success is how a student develops after they graduate and whether the principles taught at a young age are treasured as they grow older.

A few years ago, I visited an Amish community in Pennsylvania and was fascinated to learn about Rumspringa, a rite of passage for 18-year-olds who are required to leave the community for a year or two and encouraged to enjoy the temptations of modern society.

I was astonished to discover that 90 per cent choose to return to their community. I could not help but wonder what percentage of our community’s youth would return given this option.

There are few studies that track the progress of Jewish students after graduating school and it will be interesting to see the findings of the excellent Pears Foundation’s Jewish Lives longitudinal research that is exploring this aspect.   

However, there is little question that this is an area for serious concern for our community. Students often leave high school proud and connected with their Jewish identity; however, over the course of a gap year and a few years at university there appears to be an alarming attrition rate.

It seems that the longer students are away from school, the more tenuous the link with the community, and our only hope of bringing them back are the touchpoints when they get married or have children of their own.

This highlights the enormous challenges facing educators. The temptations of modern society are pulling at our youth and it is increasingly difficult to imbue them with a love for their religion, which they often see as dated and irrelevant.   

We have to find ways of enthusing and engaging our youth and ensuring they appreciate the value and importance of our traditions.  This requires inspiring educators and innovation in the classroom.

While PaJeS, among other organisations, works to support schools and enhance the quality of provision, this can only be achieved with significant investment.  Our community must recognise the importance of Jewish education and this need has been reinforced recently by leaders of communal organisations magnanimously calling for investment in Jewish schools.

There is no question we are facing a crisis and even before the worrying economic downturn there was already an enormous disparity between the contribution towards schooling in the UK compared to that of parents elsewhere.

We are very fortunate that many of our schools are state-funded, but this is barely sufficient to cover basic provision. Parents in many countries across the world pay over £20,000 per year per child, whereas in 2021-22 the average funding allocation per pupil in England was £4,582 for primary schools and £5,874 for secondary schools.

Or to put it another way, we are spending a quarter of the amount per child here compared to education in other countries.

Under the circumstances, the performance of our schools is quite exceptional. We are seeing a remarkably high proportion of Jewish children attending Jewish schools, many of which are recognised as being among the top performing schools in this country. However, the disparity with other countries is likely to get worse as we are facing an inevitable degradation in education with larger class sizes, less innovation and underpaid teachers; resulting inevitably in poorer outcomes.

It underlines how critical voluntary contributions are, and how much our attitude towards them needs to change. We have to stop thinking we are doing the schools a favour by donating and recognise that while we are very fortunate to receive government funding, our support as parents and grandparents is critical to the continued effective education of our children.

As a community, we must prioritise our investment in Jewish education.  This certainly means financial support but that is not the only way we should be investing in our children.

I somehow doubt that the reason the Amish youth returned home was due to the superlative education they received at school. It is far more likely due to the attachment to their home and bond with their community.  Meaning that we cannot understate the critical role that parents play in the success of their child’s education.

At a meeting I attended for headteachers of secondary schools, the local authority presented data charting student outcomes based on ethnic origin. They highlighted the fact that certain ethnic groups had significantly outperformed others across the borough and concluded that schools needed to turn their focus more actively to students  from underperforming ethnic minorities.

However, one head pointed out that all these students sat in the same classroom and in fact the disparity in performance was far more likely to be due to the differing attitudes in the home.

The students that came from homes actively supporting the school and promoting the values and importance of academic study were the ones where the students had performed best; and those students that came from homes that placed less value on academic studies performed less well.  Parental involvement is a key determinate in student outcomes.

Often described as the People of the Book, we are a nation that values learning and it is embedded in our homes. For the vast majority reading this article, our Jewish identity has likely been very strongly influenced by our parents’ homes. If we want to see children who are proud of their heritage, then the starting point has to be the home.

There is of course another important partner, which for generations has been the centre of the Jewish community — the synagogue. It is the well from which all Jewish life stems and unless we can ensure that our children are tapped into this well, they are at risk of losing their connection with their traditions and their religion.

While we are seeing some wonderful initiatives engaging young professionals, we need to create and ensure a closer relationship between the school and synagogue.

Judaism is a religion rich in heritage and our schools are rightly at the epicentre of Jewish life. However, they cannot work independently of the rest of our communal structure. The future of our community is dependent not just on the education received at school but on the values promoted in the home and the ongoing engagement our children have with the community.

These are difficult times and we face enormous challenges whether it is financially or from the sad and worrying increase in antisemitism. We have weathered these storms many times over past generations but the challenges for parents today are unparalleled.

It is only by ensuring that the home, the school and the community work together to reflect and celebrate the wonders of our traditions, that our children will hold true to these values. Our children are our future, and if we don’t invest in our future, who will?

Rabbi Meyer is chief executive of PaJeS (Partnerships for Jewish Schools)

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