The Charedi protests against the Schools Bill are a desecration of Jewish values

It is wrong to defend illegal schools which do not teach even basic English, maths or other vital subjects

June 21, 2022 10:58

Let’s do a quick sanity check. If you had a teenage child, would you send him or her to a school where there was virtually no English or maths taught, certainly no history or sciences, while sports, drama and art were absent too?

What is more, how would you feel if it was a school where health and safety regulations did not apply, be it checks on bullying by other pupils or abuse by teachers, while fire escapes and hydrants were woefully inadequate?

On top of this, would you mind if there was no monitoring of the school by Ofsted, who were never admitted for any inspections, be it academic standards or the well-being of pupils?

If your answer was along the lines of  “This sounds appalling - Dickensian - of course I would not send any child of mine to such a school - why do you even bother asking such a question - no way - in fact, such schools should not be allowed to exist in the first place”, then I would agree with you, as I suspect would most other JC readers.

But what is astonishing is that such places do exist. What is even worse is that they are Jewish schools. Most reprehensible of all, there are an estimated 1,500 Jewish children attending them in England today.

These are the unregistered schools for 13-16 year olds used by the Charedi community, sometimes called yeshiva ketana, which currently do not fall under the category of state or private education and therefore are completely unregulated and do not have to uphold any external standards.

To be clear, they are not the same as Charedi or other Jewish schools which are registered and which do conform to basic minimum standards. It is also worth noting that this is not exclusively a Jewish issue. There are also other unregistered faith schools - largely within the Muslim community, but also some Christian ones.

Precisely because they are all unregistered - which is a another term for illegal - they are often held in buildings not designed for schoolchildren, with cramped conditions, overcrowded, inadequate light, little fresh air, narrow corridors and without any regard to fire hazards.

But if they are all equally guilty of denying their pupils access to wider education, or potentially putting them in physical danger, we must be particularly concerned with the Jewish ones.

They bring the Jewish community into disrepute but, far more importantly, they do a massive disservice to Jewish children.

Such lack of education not only stifles their present but also stunts their future. It means that if any of the pupils wish to move away from full-time study in later life, they will find it hard to obtain employment and even harder to earn sufficient income to support any family of their own.

What is such a puzzle is that they have long been known about, yet have been allowed to exist, under the state radar, but with everyone knowing about them.

The issue has surfaced thanks to the demonstration outside the House of Commons last week by some 200 Stamford Hill Chasidim protesting against the Schools Bill, which seeks to impose state oversight on their schools.

It may be tempting to side with co-religionists, as well as to admire their dedication to Jewish studies, but surely not if it means depriving the children in their care of safeguards.

It may be moving to hear them speak of how they suffered in the Holocaust and are trying to rebuild Jewish life, but many non-Charedi families also lost relatives yet manage to both perpetuate Jewish life and abide by the law of the land in terms of children’s education.

The demonstrators are not necessarily representative of all Chasidic Jews, and it is to be hoped that they will find a way of maintaining their traditions - but doing so within the law, remembering it is there solely to protect children.

Meanwhile Jewish representative bodies, be it the Board of Deputies or religious organisations, should take a stand, publicly backing the Schools Bill, whilst also privately helping to negotiate a way forward.

It may not be comfortable confronting fellow Jews, especially when they can be so vociferous, but when they are the ones guilty of Hillul HaShem (desecration of Jewish values) by putting the ways of the past above the needs of Jewish children today, then the rest of us have to remember the answer we gave to the sanity check above.

Dr Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue

June 21, 2022 10:58

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