There really is no place like home

View from the Data

November 24, 2016 23:22

My son starts secondary school this week. He is considered one of the lucky ones – he was offered and accepted a place at one of the greatly sought-after Jewish schools, which is, of course, a tremendous relief. It means that his Jewish identity is secure, and that he should, in time, marry someone Jewish.

At least that is what most British Jews think. When JPR asked them as part of its 2013 National Jewish Community Survey, 80 per cent agreed with the statement "Jewish schools strengthen children's Jewish identity" and 60 per cent agreed that "Jewish schools increase the chances of children eventually marrying other Jews."

But are they right? Insufficient research has been done on this topic in the UK to know for sure. Yet, certainly, when one compares Jewish pupils in Jewish schools with those in non-Jewish schools, those in Jewish schools consistently score higher on most measures of Jewish identity. The problem is that one cannot assume that this is the result of something the schools have done. On the contrary, children who go to Jewish schools typically come from Jewish families who are more engaged in Jewish life to start with. So the differences observed may actually have little to do with the schools themselves, and much more to do with what is going on at home.

When we have used advanced statistical methods to try to unpick this, we have found that Jewish schools do, indeed, have some long-term impact on their pupils' Jewish identities, but in quite particular ways. JPR's research findings indicate that, once we have adjusted for any differences in Jewish upbringing at home, graduates of Jewish schools are slightly more likely than graduates of general schools to turn up in shul or at Jewish social events, and marginally more likely to feel connected to Israel or "the Jewish People".

But there is no evidence to prove that they become more religiously observant, or more actively engaged in running Jewish activities, or more likely to volunteer for or contribute funds to Jewish charities.

We are shaped by many forces - school is only one

In essence, schools seem to be quite effective at socialising young Jews into the community but rather less successful at cultivating religiously or culturally active community movers and shakers.

In some respects, we should not be surprised about this. Outside of the charedi sector, most Jewish pupils in Jewish schools spend the vast majority of their time studying Maths, English, Languages, Science and the Humanities. While Jewish studies and Hebrew are certainly part of the curriculum, there is little if any evidence to demonstrate that knowledge gained in either of these fields automatically makes someone a more committed Jew. It can achieve this, of course, but it is certainly not a given, any more than knowledge gained in mathematics automatically makes someone a committed algebraist.

Identity development is profoundly complex. We are shaped by numerous forces, only one of which is the schools we attend. Other educational experiences may also leave a mark –- summer camps, family holidays, Israel tours, gap-year schemes, experiences in sport or music. Genetics almost certainly plays a part. But the one factor that is the most influential statistically –- far more so than schooling - and over which we have the most control, is what happens in our homes.

It turns out that the Jewish life we create for our children in our homes is really critical. Marking Shabbat, celebrating Jewish festivals, observing kashrut, are all closely related to the long-term cultivation of committed and engaged Jews. Immersing our children in a home environment that is profoundly and compellingly Jewish is likely to have a far greater impact upon them over time than almost anything they are likely to experience in a Jewish school.

So, if you are among the unfortunate few who wanted to send their child to a Jewish school but couldn't get a place, all is not lost. On the contrary, there is still plenty you can do at home to nurture a very robust and meaningful Jewish identity.

And if, like me, you are among the growing proportion of British Jewish parents whose children are in Jewish schools, don't be fooled into thinking that your job is done. Jewish schools are excellent in many ways but you cannot delegate responsibility to them to secure your children's Jewish identity. It won't work. The Jewish home you create for them matters most - there is absolutely no substitute for that.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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