Are Jewish schools good for Judaism?

A new research project hopes to find out if Jewish day schools have a positive influence on the Jewish outlook of their pupils


In 1964 ITV launched a groundbreaking documentary, 7 Up, which interviewed a group of seven-year-old children from across Britain; seven years later the programme-makers went back to see how they were growing up and returned for subsequent series. Now comes what UJIA research director Dr Helena Miller is calling “our Jewish 7 Up”.

It is a research project which will try to find out what difference going to a Jewish secondary school makes to children and the families that send them there. The first survey of hundreds of children and their parents took place in September 2011 when they entered secondary school. Over the course of the next six years of the pupil’s school career, the researchers will return at various stages to see how attitudes to Judaism and Jewish identity change.

“We are doing something that has never been done before,” said Dr Miller, the leader of the project, which is funded by the Pears Foundation. “It’s very rare to have longitudinal research in education because it is expensive and people don’t have the appetite for doing something over a very long period.”

For many, the argument has long been won that Jewish schools are the best hope if Jewish communities are to survive in the diaspora. The ever-increasing enrolment at Jewish schools suggests that parents are voting with their feet. But there are some voices which still wonder whether this confidence is misplaced and whether youth groups and part-time education, properly resourced, could do the job just as well, and perhaps more economically. Barely any research has been undertaken here — and precious little abroad — to show what influence Jewish schools actually do have on their pupils.

Not only is the UJIA/Pears project unprecedented in ambition but also in scope. All of the mainstream Jewish secondary schools in London and Manchester are taking part: JFS, Hasmonean, Immanuel, Yavneh, King Solomon, JCoSS and King David High. And critically, Dr Miller and her team will be comparing results with two other sets of families: those who applied for a place at a Jewish school for their child but did not take it up and those that did not apply to a Jewish school at all.

According to the initial findings, there was little difference in motivation between those who sent their children to a Jewish school and those that chose not. The most important factor in selecting a school for both groups was the quality of general academic education and the child’s prospect of going on to higher education. Those who opted for a non-Jewish school enjoyed a higher income, allowing access to the top independent schools with the best academic track record.

As for giving children an “intensive Jewish education”, parents who preferred Jewish schools were more interested in that, Dr Miller said, “but not very much more”. Providing a “foundation of Jewish knowledge and tradition” was thought more important for schools than competence in Hebrew. Still, when parents were asked to rate the importance of factors on a one to five scale, the score for Hebrew was above half.

Interestingly, the most committed parents had lower expectations of the effect the school would have on their children’s Jewish life than those less practising. “The families who are highly engaged in Jewish life — who are very involved in synagogue or in Limmud and other educational opportunities — those families are not looking to the school to be the locus for much change because that’s what they are doing at home,” Dr Miller explained.

“The people who are moderately engaged had the highest expectations of how school would change their Jewish lives — people who maybe go to shul a few times a year, may have gone to Israel, may be involved in Jewish life in other ways, who light candles but are not shomer Shabbat. They are not necessarily looking for Jewish knowledge. They are certainly looking for Jewish friendship groups for their children and for the schools to help develop a Jewish identity in their children.”

It is the “moderately engaged” who form the largest pool of students. If children from these families feel that going to a Jewish school has enhanced their Jewish lives, then that will make a persuasive case for Jewish schools.

There are different ways to measure how a Jewish school may add “Jewish value”, from synagogue attendance, for example, to affinity with Israel. One thing that did surprise the researchers was how high the association already was with Israel among Jewish school parents; nearly three-quarters or more had visited the country three times or more (though 11-year-olds feel less of a bond than their parents).

The research will also look at the students’ broader sense of identity. When they started school, they recorded “median to high” levels both in feeling British and in feeling Jewish. “What we will be tracking over the years to come is how that develops over the years,” said Dr Miller. “If you are in a Jewish school, for example, does your Jewish identity increase and your British identity decrease? So we will be looking to see whether going to a Jewish school has any effect on how you see yourself as a person in your society.” (Though one sense of identity need not increase at the expense of the other).

Ideally, the research would not stop at the end of school, but follow the students from university until the time they become parents themselves, seeing what Jewish choices they eventually make. Only then might we know whether the great investment in Jewish schools has really been worth it.

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