Jewish leaders this week dramatically dropped plans to press for a change in the law to overturn the recent Supreme Court decision on Jewish school admissions.
On Tuesday the Board of Deputies called off a meeting planned for the next day with synagogue leaders, which was to have discussed introducing an amendment to the government’s Equality Bill.
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board, said that there was widespread agreement that it was better not to go immediately for legislative change in case it produced “unintended consequences”.
The Board had been trying to build a consensus across the community to back a change in the law, having drafted a possible amendment in readiness some months ago.
But the non-Orthodox movements made it clear that they would only support such a move in return for an agreement from the United Synagogue to allow the children of Progressive converts into mainstream Orthodox schools.
The United Synagogue backed the Board’s decision to postpone any lobby for legal change but its rabbis found it “deeply regrettable that we should be seen surrendering rather than actively and aggressively pursuing every
avenue available to us”.
Mr Wineman said that although the proposed amendment was “neat, we didn’t know how it would work out or whether it would have unintended consequences”.
He said that consultations with synagogue and other leaders “had made it clear that the vast majority of the community would rather see how the Supreme Court judgemment impacts on their activities and then consider what kind of amendment we need rather than rush into it. Everyone felt it sensible to wait”.
The Supreme Court last month upheld an Appeal Court ruling that it was unlawful for Jewish schools to select pupils according to whether their parents were Jewish because that contravened the Race Relations Act.
Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “I was delighted that the Board has seen the wisdom of the advice from Liberal Judaism not to get involved in a matter which has the support of only part of the Jewish community.
“The Board has demonstrated a sense of maturity, realising it should only act if it has the support of the whole community.”
A spokesman for the United Synagogue said it that “agrees fully with the Board that, while legislative change is desirable, it would not be advisable to push for an amendment in the limited time available. It is vital for us all to consider how the Supreme Court decision will impact on the community before rushing into important decisions.”
The US, he added, had not considered putting forward its own amendment to the Equality Bill, which comes back to the House of Lords on Monday.
But the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, after a special meeting on Wednesday, issued a strong statement to say that they “were deeply concerned to learn that a change in legislation is not being actively pursued”.
The US rabbis, led by Rabbi Yitchak Schochet, said: “We reject the non-Orthodox movements holding us to ransom in this matter to only agree to a change of legislation on condition that we do not revert to the status quo ante. It is untenable that a movement that has been around little more than 100 years should seek to impose their standards on a community that has remained faithful to the tenets of Jewish tradition for nearly 3500years. It is unacceptable and unconscionable that we should yield to that sort of pressure.”
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform movement, said: “We are delighted but not surprised the Board recognises that it can only act when there is a consensus. It is clear that the Liberal, Masorti and Reform movements are now indispensable to a consensus.”
He was also doubtful whether an amendment would get through parliament unless it was understood to have widespread backing from within the Jewish community.
“I would have thought that political parties would know better than to take sides in an inter-communal dispute,” he said. “If someone were to pursue legislative change without a consensus, we would oppose it vigorously. I understand from both the Board and the United Synagogue that they wouldn’t dream of doing it.”
A spokesman for the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, would say only that he was “giving consideration to what the next step would be”.
Masorti’s senior rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, said the Board had taken the “right decision”. He added: “I would need to see a clear, reasoned argument about what danger to the community there is felt to be in the current legislation before it is possible to decide whether an amendment is in any way called for.”
So far as is known, the Supreme Court ruling only affects Jewish schools, which have now had to introduce tests of religious observance for applicants rather select them simply on the basis of Jewish parentage. It does not hit synagogues or homes for the elderly which are otherwise protected by the law.
The court case had been brought on behalf of a child who was initially rejected from JFS, a US-controlled school, because his mother was a Progressive convert and thus not Jewish according to the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
He has since been accepted into the school and, as the law now stands, there is no way Orthodox schools can screen out the children of Progressive converts.
But the non-Orthodox movements want to ensure that if there is any future change in the law, schools under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi will not return to barring their converts.
Rabbi Bayfield said: “We are waiting to see if the US is serious about finding a way forward which does not go back to the status quo. I believe they are.
“The US told me that serious consideration is being given to some form of understanding which would preserve the Orthodox character of Orthodox schools but at the same time make them more open to all Jewish children whose parents want them to have an Orthodox education.
“That could be the positive thing that could come out of this negative episode – the realisation we have to have collaboration.”
The rabbis Speak
Statement of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue
We are deeply appreciative of the huge amount of effort and resource which has been expended to date in defence of the Orthodox community’s right to determine priority right of admission to its Jewish day schools on the singular criteria of halachic status.
However we are deeply concerned to learn that a change in legislation is not being actively pursued.
While we appreciate that the outcome may be unpredictable, we feel that in looking to preserve Jewish integrity every possible effort must be exerted. It is deeply regrettable that we should be seen surrendering rather than actively and aggressively pursuing every avenue available to us, regardless of how remote the chances.
Furthermore, we reject the non-Orthodox movements holding us to ransom in this matter to only agree to a change of legislation on condition that we do not revert to the status quo ante. It is untenable that a movement that has been around little more than 100 years should seek to impose their standards on a community that has remained faithful to the tenets of Jewish tradition for nearly 3500 years. It is unacceptable and unconscionable that we should yield to that sort of pressure.
As rabbis we are guarantors for the Jewish future and share in the responsibility of ensuring that we will have Jewish grandchildren. To that end it is in our paramount interest to ensure that every halachically Jewish child, regardless of observance level, is given an opportunity for Jewish education, and that his or her place not be compromised by those who do not fall into that bracket.