Life & Culture

Interview: Benjamin Perl

Our chiefs can’t fix Jewish education, so I do it


Every time a child gets a place in a Jewish school, he or she should feel grateful that the picture frame business has never been better. At a time when children attend synagogues as never before so that they can compete for a place at a Jewish school, their parents ought to mutter a few words of thanks to the man whose portrait adorns many of those educational institutions.

If it were not for the crusade - to use a totally inappropriate term for a man who wears a large black kippah and who dots his conversation with Yiddish - of Benjamin Perl, there is a good chance that those school places would never have existed.

Perl, who was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, is now the undoubted leader of the movement to support Jewish state schools and does not care who he upsets to achieve his aims. Not that he would accept the terms "movement"or "organisation". As he says: "I have no organisation. You can't do anything with an organisation." Those words give him licence to complain about the Anglo-Jewish community's "establishment". He hates what happened in the JFS saga, but has an equal dislike for the people whom he blames for getting the school into its present problems. He is joining the appeal against the Supreme Court ruling that admitting children on a purely halachic basis was racist, "because Jewish day schools are ways of maintaining Judaism". But he says it should never have been necessary.

"The United Synagogue, under pressure from the JFS board, didn't want anyone else [in the Jewish education field]. They operated like a politbureau." He does not deny that JFS is a "great school", but he says: "The JFS situation is a tragedy that should never have happened. It had a monopoly for 250 years and was operating a dictatorship policy for the last 50 years."

It was "under enormous public demand" that, he says, he worked to establish Yavneh College at Borehamwood, which in two years' time will have around 1,300 students. Like JFS, this is a "modern Orthodox" institution, but it is one freed from Perl's bête noir, "organisation". And it is sited in an area which Perl maintains needs five more Jewish primary schools even now.

"Pupils go to Yavneh because it gives them top secular and Jewish education, as well as identity," he says.

We are talking in his office in Hendon, north London, where paintings of rabbis decorate the walls and a statue of Winston Churchill stands in one corner. It says a lot about this Israeli-born businessman who went to a yeshivah, was ordained as a rabbi and is a supporter of the Conservative Party.

He decided to turn to business "because I have been able to achieve more as a businessman than I would ever have done as a rabbi". When he looks out from his terrace over a huge expanse of London, not a little of that view is of properties he himself owns.

And it is partly from the wealth created by those properties that he has been able to fund 20 Jewish schools. But not all - a proportion of that wealth has come from a building in far away Huntingdon which stores millions of picture frames which are the core of his business.

It was Huntingdon and what is now called the Huntingdon Foundation that gave him the impetus to start his educational work - which he says was inspired by his father who, pre-dating Tony Blair, emphasised that education was the most important thing in which he could be involved.

Perl needed permission to turn a building in the town into a factory. When the local council proved difficult, he contacted the constituency MP, a certain John Major. He not only helped, he became a friend. At a memorable dinner at Perl's London home, Major, who was by then Prime Minister, was introduced to wealthy Jewish businessmen who pledged a fortune to the setting up of Jewish schools.

In the mean time, Perl financed Major's area Tory HQ, "because it had been over a fish and chip shop and I thought that was a shander [a humiliation]". And so Perl began to campaign for Jewish schools in earnest - first buying one school with his own money, arranging a mortgage, and then when that was sorted out, buying another one. But he is only interested in schools run on what he calls "United Synagogue-plus" lines.

That is one of the reasons for his dislike of JCoSS, the new non-denominational school in Barnet which, he claims, will not question the identity of its students. "JCoSS have taken children from four other schools, meaning that those schools will have to take in non-Jewish children. Until five years ago, there were 2,500 children at these Jewish schools. Now there are 6,300. But the number is being reduced by JCoSS, whose organisers are behaving like barrow boys in Petticoat Lane. Why do we need JCoSS? It was set up to take all those doubtful converts who cannot get into JFS and so is ruining existing schools," he says.

"JCoSS came into the high-school market place immediately after the 50 per cent expansion of JFS and the opening of Yavneh. This has not allowed the market to grow in an orderly fashion and was not an act to satisfy the education needs of our community. It was based on an ego trip that's threatening the well-being of the Anglo-Jewish school community."

That, like many of the things he says, is, of course, highly controversial. But he will accept no opposition to the notion. "And what will happen with that new school?" he goes on. "In a few years, it will be known as JCROSS. I'm afraid that one day it will be a school for goyim. It's a tragedy."

The founders of JCoSS will not like what he says - any more than the "so-called", as he puts it, Jewish Leadership Council will like the way he denounces them too. "There are people in the Leadership Council who not only speak up against Jewish day schools, they have never visited a Jewish day school and they will never set foot into our citadels because they're too Jewish for them. So they are sitting on the council because they believe it will get them into the House of Lords, but don't want to go into the Lord's house. The people who should be the movers and shakers could set an example and don't."

Then there's the UJIA which, he says, "raises plenty of money for Jewish education but is not interested in helping set up Jewish schools."

Perl has devoted himself to Jewish schools for 40 years because he believes, to this day, that "there is apartheid in our community. Not an apartheid about the colour of people's skin, but about the colour of their money. Rich people send their children to private schools and don't understand the urgent need of the middle-classes for voluntary-aided schools."

And he adds: "Between the two 'saints', St Albans and St John's Wood, there are 10,000 children who can't get into Jewish schools. Ninety per cent of Jewish parents would like Jewish schools for their children. There are 450 Jewish children at Brookland school [a state school in Temple Fortune] as well as 300 at Radlett Prep." The latter is a popular private school in south Hertfordshire, which he thinks would lose most of these youngsters if there were more places at Jewish institutions, even though many of their parents could afford to pay the fees.

Perl is not a modest man and it is not difficult to work out why. He is proud of what he has done and when he visits three of the schools he has helped create, his passion for the project is obvious. He is like a grandfather visiting his children's children, stopping tiny first-years at the Morashah primary school in Finchley, talking to strictly Orthodox girls at the Beth Jacob School in Colindale, telling them that he knows their fathers, and positively glowing as he walks through the theatre, laboratories and gymnasium of Yavneh College, which is quite clearly his pride and joy. He wants to know where the children came from, what they want to do when they leave school - and does not question the religiosity of any of them.

So he is a man who could rest on a collection of laurels - until, that is, he opens his next school. That will be in Kingsbury, in London, in September.

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