Jewish groups divided over recommendations for faith schools


Jewish groups are divided over a call by an independent commission for religious schools to open their doors to other communities and teach about different faiths.

While Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was critical of recommendations by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, they were broadly welcomed by Reform, Liberal and Masorti.

The commission, which was set up two years ago by the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, said that state-aided religious schools and bodies responsible for admissions policies should reduce the number of pupils selected on the basis of faith.

It also called for a compulsory new religious education curriculum for all state-aided schools which taught about “religious and non-religious worldviews” rather than allow religious schools to teach only about their own faith.

A spokesman for Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis - who is a patron of the Woolf Institute, which studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims - said that he was “was very disappointed with aspects of the report and we intend to convey his thoughts to the authors privately”.

The Board of Deputies also opposed changing the status quo on faith schools. “The success of Jewish faith schools is partly due to the sense of shared values and a shared purpose,” a spokesman said.

“Quotas or other interventions in schools’ admissions criteria risk losing this benefit. We support the right of schools to continue to set their own admissions criteria.”

But Matt Plen, chief executive of Masorti Judaism, said that “we agree that faith schools – including Jewish schools – should aspire to admit a mix of children from different religious backgrounds and none, and that all students in these schools should be taught to think for themselves through exposure to a broad curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics.”

The Reform movement’s Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said that “a more pluralist approach to schools admissions is good for our children, good for our communities and good for Britain. Diversity and inclusivity enriches our schools and should be welcomed.”

Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich said that “many Liberal Jewish families have taken up places at Jewish schools, particularly JCoSS but many Liberal Jews have always had concerns which are reflected in the report.”

The report called for greater awareness throughout society of Britain’s changing religious make-up to take account of the growing number of people who did not identify with a religion or who were from a non-Christian tradition.

Civic and national events such as the Coronation should reflect religious pluralism rather than be only a Church of England ceremony, it said, and the House of Lords – which has reserved seats for Anglican bishops – should include a wider spread of religious voices.

It also recommended repeal of the current statutory requirement for state secular schools to have Christian assemblies.

On religious schooling, the commissioners stated that “in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led to greater misunderstanding and tension”.

But in a strong statement, the United Synagogue decried “the false assumption that provision for vibrant faith communities creates division within our society”.

The US added that “by undermining religious identities the report risks perpetuating an intolerance of faith groups which should have no part in our 21st -century society.”

Golders Green United Synagogue’s Rabbi Harvey Dr Belovski said that the commission had shown a lack of awareness that giving young people a solid grounding in their own tradition and values led to a broader respect for “inclusive multiculturalism”.

“Our faith schools contribute enormously to diversity and mutual understanding,” he said.

The 20 commissioners, chaired by the prominent legal figure Baroness Butler-Sloss, included Orthodox academic and former synagogue minister Rabbi Norman Solomon.

The commission also called for the Ministry of Justice to issue guidelines to ensure that religious tribunals such as sharia courts and Batei Din comply with equality law.

Federation of Synagogues Beth Din head Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein warned that this could effect rabbinical courts operating under arbitration rules. “One example might be that women are limited in the kind of evidence accepted from them according to halachah and that could fall foul of the Equality Act,” he said.

But Rabbi Rich commented that the report was a “significant forward step and in particular we welcome its willingness to confront the inequalities which can arise when religious tribunals such as Batei Din failure to acknowledge the rights of women or compile with British standards of justice.”

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