A touch of class at UJIA teacher conference


How should we teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How are Jewish schools promoting British values? And how do we respond to challenging questions about faith?

Such were some of the questions posed on Thursday, when UJIA gathered leading Jewish educators from across the country in Finchley for its annual research conference.

"Israel is no longer the place of kibbutzim, camels and falafels," said Alex Sinclair, director of programmes in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Israel, who made the keynote speech.

"It is a very complex place. How do we teach students without whitewashing? With love and compassion, but also with critique and activism?"

Dr Sinclair continued: "If we ignore people's concerns, we're in danger of losing young liberal Jews who want to engage with Israel's complexities."

We have a lot to learn from wider society, and a lot to teach them

His audience, a roll call of headteachers, educators and researchers, then split into groups to discuss the nuances of Jewish and Israeli education.

While Clive Lawton and Jo-Ann Myers focussed on the UK's shortcomings in teaching Hebrew, Yolande Peters and Nic Abery looked at how the educational agency PaJeS is working to develop curriculum inside Jewish schools.

Nic Abery, director of the teaching consultancy firm LooktoLearn, eased the concerns of teachers over the government's edict to teach British values inside schools.

"There is definite discord between the Department for Education and Ofsted, but hopefully that is changing," she said. "We don't have to promote other religions, but we do have to show tolerance.

"Schools haven't been scaremongered; rather, they have been able to develop their own approaches to British values - whether that is by devoting a day per term to teaching it, or implementing it into their weekly curriculum."

In his session, Rabbi Raphael Zarum, Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), presented a new online resource dedicated to answering tough questions about Judaism.

"A culture of questions has grown with the death of deference," Rabbi Zarum said. "There is less respect for authority. Meanwhile, parents no longer know everything; they can't even work half the appliances in the house.

"The way knowledge works is also changing, as children can easily look things up online."

In this climate, he explained, an online tool would equip adults with the resources to answer children's difficult questions - those relating to God, the Torah and Jewish identity.

"We are carriers of a tradition," he said. "It is not my job to prove God exists, but to point out what is written in the Torah."

Finishing up the day were Rabbi Michael Pollak and Ron Margolin, who discussed the compatibility of Jewish and secular learning, and David Schwartz and Dr Sinclair, who returned to the latter's opening query: how do you teach about Israel?

"There is surprise among students about how much they don't know about the conflict," Dr Sinclair said. "Giving them the opportunity to know more empowers them."

Helena Miller, UJIA's director of research and evaluation, and organiser of the conference, summed up the event's importance: "This is the only time in our calendar when we can bring together people who are engaged on every level with Jewish education," she said. "We have a growing number of people who are interested in this topic.

"We have a lot to learn from wider society, and a lot to teach wider society too."

Dr Miller also used the opportunity to update her colleagues on phase two of the research project she launched in 2011. Since then, she has been surveying the lives of more than 1,000 families who entered their children into Jewish schools at the age of 11.

An interesting development, she said, was that "while students, now in year nine, continue to be comfortable with their identity as Jews, they are far more at ease with their British identity than they were two years ago".

Dr Miller also revealed her hopes to continue the survey, which is being sponsored by the Pears Foundation, for as long as possible.

"Hopefully, in 20 years' time, I'll be standing here in my zimmer frame telling you about where this lot are sending their children," she said.

As the conference drew to a close, Rabbi David Meyer, chief executive of PaJeS, celebrated its success.

"It is important to give everybody the opportunity to collate ideas," he said. "Educators cannot be experts in every element. By us centralising all our ideas, it is a great opportunity to assess our effectiveness."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive