The room was rife with worry as talk turned to securing those all-important pass marks at GCSE. But rather than school pupils, the crowd was filled with religious education teachers.
On Monday, the Board of Deputies, together with Pajes, sought to ease concerns by gathering more than 90 teachers from across the country at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in central London.
The aim was to shed some fundamental light on modern Judaism ahead of the government’s changes to the GCSE religious studies curriculum, which will require all schools to teach at least two religions.
Board president Jonathan Arkush presented a brief history of Jews in the UK to the crowd, which was mostly made up of teachers from Catholic schools, before inviting Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to the floor to talk about the nature of Jewish prayer.
“Prayers are on our lips constantly and are at the heart of our daily life,” Rabbi Mirvis said. “Our aim is to build up the knowledge and expertise of those who pray – that is why Hebrew is so important to us.”
Throughout the day, conference-goers heard from leading educators in the community, including Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Pajes, Rabbi Raphael Zarum, dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, and Patrick Moriarty, headteacher of JCoSS.
The latter chaired a Q+A session with representatives from the AQA, OCR, Eduqas and Edexcel exam bodies, who explained how the new exams would be set and marked to comply with government requirements.They all confirmed that new Judaism and Christianity GCSE textbooks were being published specially for the course.
“The change to the syllabus is daunting and feels quite rushed, but it is a good challenge,” said Bernadette Eakin, a religious studies teacher at St Peter’s Roman Catholic High School in Gloucester.
“Today is a good starting point. You can learn a lot from Judaism for Dummies – which I bought last week – but there is nothing quite like coming to a synagogue in central London and hearing the Chief Rabbi speak.
“It is our equivalent of hearing from the Cardinal or Pope.”
Peter Ward, a director of the Catholic community’s National Board of Religious Inspectors and Advisers (NBRIA), was equally impressed by Rabbi Mirvis’ attendance.
“It was fascinating to hear from the Chief Rabbi, and we were able to identify with a lot of what he said about prayer,” Mr Ward said. “We have taught about other religions in the past, but the big difference here is that this is for exams.”
Andrew Barron, an RE adviser for Hexham and Newcastle, added: “The wonderful effect of it all has been the opportunity to meet new people. This is certainly helping to build bridges between the Catholic and Jewish communities.”