We need more Jewish schools rather than just schools for Jews


Current discussion about Jewish free schools has centred on one aspect: their admissions policy. Under the regulations, they can reserve only half their places for Jewish children and, in theory, the rest may come from other faiths. Unhappy with this state of affairs, the Chief Rabbi is lobbying for lifting the 50 per cent cap. But the debate misses a more burning issue than entry rules: how much Judaism is actually taught in our schools.

Jewish schools fall broadly into three groups. First, those that have a full kodesh (Jewish studies) programme with little, if any secular studies: second, those that offer a full secular curriculum including A-levels and also a full kodesh programme, sometimes up to half a day: and third, those with a full secular programme but a minimum amount of kodesh, sometimes barely an hour a day.

The first group not only falls foul of the government's requirements for literacy and numeracy skills, it also does a disservice to its children, when in adult life they are ill-equipped to gain useful employment. The second group includes a number of schools that are top of the league tables. Most graduates leave school observant of Judaism and able to study Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. They attend yeshivot and seminaries and then university or go into business. While these children will have come from observant homes, this does not detract from their hard work and achievements.

The final group is perhaps the most challenging. It includes both the wholly (or almost wholly) Jewish schools and also Jewish free schools. While some may rank high in league tables, children receive only a slightly enhanced cheder education at best. By the time they reach key stage four, their only formal kodesh is GCSE Jewish studies, which will now be further diluted due to the requirement to study an additional faith. Often there is no mandatory kodesh for the sixth form.

While these schools may have a varied approach to additional optional kodesh offerings, either during lunchtime or after school, the core kodesh is minimal and unlikely to equip children sufficiently as adults to be more comfortable with their Judaism and more observant. Many leave school still unable to read Hebrew fluently.

Many children leave school still unable to read Hebrew fluently

I am not naïve. The challenges are huge. If these schools increase their kodesh, it will make the day longer; additionally, some parents may feel threatened that their children will become more religious than them. Hence, the unsatisfactory status quo remains.

But there is an approach which may work and which some schools have adopted. Bring in outreach workers. Have Shabbatonim. Provide educational programmes for the parents and enable them to experience the benefits and beauty of Torah-based Judaism. I know of at least one Jewish free school that has successfully integrated a kodesh-plus programme into the standard school day.

It is not unusual for a Jewish school to have a number of Christian, Sikh and Muslim children attending who are very respectful of the Jewish ethos of the school. These children are invariably from homes that encourage sex only within marriage and seek high standards of education and employment.

Yet ironically, some Jewish families may have sent their children to a Jewish school, free or otherwise, simply out of convenience or for its secular academic teaching. They continue to have birthday parties in McDonald's or Frankie & Benny's with no religious sensitivity or respect for others when they invite other Jewish children - something the non-Jewish families would never dream of doing! Some children from other faiths have even won the prizes for highest attendance at the optional weekday minyan, for Ivrit and Jewish studies.

Is the "Jewish ethos" of such schools some form of Torah-based Judaism intended to increase observance and impart serious Jewish knowledge or is it simply

"cultural Judaism" with time off school for the Jewish festivals?

The latter outlook is mirrored in the way that the annual Shabbat UK celebration in many places has become a Jewish cultural weekend. Many synagogues have not increased their activities throughout the year, but have simply shifted their existing Friday night dinner, Shabbat day lunch and melaveh malkah to the Shabbat UK weekend.

When this concept began in South Africa the objective was to encourage observance for one full Shabbat. It was intended to be transformative, proving an impetus for further observance and Jewish study, and it has been largely successful in achieving that.

In the UK, however, which synagogues this year will be inviting members to talk at their events to share their journey towards greater observance over the last couple of years since Shabbat UK began?

Cultural Judaism has its place but for the types of Jewish schools that fit into the third category - whether they are wholly Jewish or a mixed free school - their mission should be to encourage parents and children to study and observe more, albeit one step at a time, underpinned by a truly comprehensive kodesh programme.

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