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Faith-based schools? Socialise, yes but learn first

November 24, 2016 23:20

Should Jewish schools welcome non-Jewish students, or seek to exclude them? Our rabbis can't agree. In one corner, we have the United Synagogue's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, arguing that the government should change the rule that free schools can allocate only 50 per cent of places on the basis of faith.

In the other corner , we have nearly 70 Progressive rabbis, who want the rule to stay in place. Allowing Jewish and non-Jewish students to mix in secondary school will help young Jews grow into well-integrated adults.

The context of this row is the competition to open a new Jewish secondary school in north London or Hertfordshire. There are currently three groups putting together proposals, all for free schools; one inclusive, modern Orthodox, and two United Synagogue-style schools. The future of thousands of children will be determined by which group is granted permission to go ahead.

It's unfortunate, then, that the rabbis have directed public debate towards a relatively minor issue, namely the socialisation of our children.

This focus on who is allowed through the school gates has already been pursued to destructive lengths in the JFS court case of 2009. Now, this same obsession is proving a distraction from the issue that should really matter: the nature and quality of the Jewish education to be provided by these three schools.

Jewish Studies is below other diasporas' standard

Where is the equivalent petition over what should be included in their Jewish curricula? Where is the passionate debate over what their approach should be to textual learning, prayer, spirituality, inter-faith, inter-denominational relations, Jewish philosophy and history?

The silence is deafening.

Only one of the schools, Barkai, seems to have developed an ambitious, distinctive Jewish vision. If the other two have one, they have not presented it publicly.

This reflects the priorities of many Jewish parents. It is widely accepted that many families send their children to mainstream Jewish schools for social reasons - so that they can be part of a wider Jewish community and, in some cases, because of a perception that non-Jewish schools are inhospitable to Jewish students.

It helps that the quality of secular education in most Jewish schools is excellent. The Jewish studies curriculum is often an afterthought or "nice to have as well". In some cases, it is an aspect of the school the parents actively try to minimise. But our rabbis, on both sides, should know better. It has often been noted that the standard of Jewish Studies in UK Jewish schools is noticeably below the standards of other major diaspora communities.

A new Jewish school is a communal endeavour and we need to think ahead, setting new standards and exercising vision for the future. An innovative Jewish studies programme, which will produce graduates with in-depth Jewish knowledge and add value to the community long-term, should be a non-negotiable communal standard.

An approach which is noticeably different to what is currently available would also be welcome. JFS and Yavneh are both outstanding institutions, but their approach to the Jewish side of their schools is similar - and parents needs real choice. So let us take this chance to answer an unspoken need.

Socialising our children into the community is important. But what will ultimately determine whether our grandchildren will be Jewish is the depth of our offspring's Jewish knowledge and religious commitment. We need to stop squabbling about whether they're going to meet a handful of non-Jewish friends as teenagers and concentrate on providing them with a truly outstanding Jewish education.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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