Matt Plen

Jewish schools are not the panacea

We need to invest in synagogue programmes and youth groups too

April 07, 2017 10:39

Full disclosure: I’m the parent of an 11-year old who, despite applying to two Jewish secondaries, has been allocated a place at a local non-Jewish state school. Many of my friends in the same position are banging on tables for an expansion of Jewish school places.  

But despite being a staunch supporter of Jewish education (I’ve worked in the field for over 20 years and was a founding governor of a Jewish free school), I’m in two minds. I believe we need much more clarity on why Jewish schools are important, what we want them to achieve and what we need to do as a community to ensure these results are delivered.

The recent rapid expansion of mainstream Jewish schooling is partly down to factors that have nothing to do with Jewish education: rising antisemitism, government policies such as the free schools programme and the increasing cost of private schools.  A tipping-point factor is also at play;  whatever their feelings about Jewish education, very few parents are willing to send their children to a school with hardly any other Jews.  

Nonetheless, the expansion of Jewish schools does represent a conscious strategy. The Jewish Leadership Council’s website claims that the expansion in Jewish schooling “means that our schools play an essential part in influencing the next generation’s Jewish identity” and that by helping these schools shape their strategic future, we can “strengthen Jewish life in the UK”.  These claims match a 2013 student survey in which 80 per cent of respondents agreed that Jewish schools strengthen Jewish identity.  

The problem is, there is very little evidence to back up these claims. A 2014 study by JPR found that “whilst Jewish education does have a collective, independent impact on Jewish identity, this impact is comparatively weak; indeed, we found that the impact of Jewish educational programmes combined was six times weaker than the impact of Jewish upbringing on most aspects of Jewish identity”. When comparing Jewish schooling with other educational interventions (for example, summer camps and Israel gap years), JPR found that it has “no measurable impact” on most dimensions of Jewish identity.  

When children start Jewish schools, their families often stop coming to shul

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish schooling often competes with other forms of communal involvement. Children in Jewish schools rarely attend cheder and this often weakens their connection with the community. Synagogue leaders tell me that when children start Jewish schools, their families often stop coming to shul.  

This is a problem because even the best schools can’t do everything; an obligatory, assessment-based framework can’t hope to generate the kind of voluntary commitment on which modern Jewish identity depends. And if family upbringing is the most important factor shaping Jewish commitment, then the implications of weakening family involvement in Jewish life are clear.

The hope might be that if schools can’t strengthen Jewish identity, at least they can perform the vital role of teaching Jewish knowledge and skills. But while most Jewish schools excel academically, Jewish studies and particularly Hebrew are often the weakest areas of the curriculum. Even schools which are strongly committed to Jewish education find it hard to recruit suitably qualified staff.

The vast majority of mainstream Jewish school graduates are still unable to speak Hebrew or to understand basic Jewish texts in the original language – two basic markers of a traditional Jewish education.

So what needs to be done?  First, we should recognise that Jewish schooling is not a panacea and the expansion of Jewish schools will not save the community. Schools are institutions designed to develop knowledge and skills.  This should be their focus. If we want our schools to produce graduates with a high level of Jewish literacy, we need to invest in teacher training.

I propose a fellowship for newly qualified teachers, who would receive a year of intensive Hebrew and Jewish education in Israel at an institution of their choice in return for a three-year commitment to working in Jewish education in the UK.  This kind of initiative could transform our educational system.

Next, we need to clarify what programmes Jewish schools should be offering and what might be more effective in another setting. Should schools be offering bar/bat-mitzvah programmes and Israel trips, or would we better off if they channelled students into programmes run by local synagogues and youth movements, institutions which specialise in sustainable community-building?

Finally, the absence of Jewish children in non-Jewish schools plus the thinning out of community-based educational options due to lack of demand actually narrows the choices available to parents. The community needs to invest in high-level synagogue programmes, youth movements and summer camps to guarantee a solution for those parents who want to combine a meaningful Jewish education with the benefits of multicultural schooling.  Which communal agency will take up this strategic challenge?

April 07, 2017 10:39

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