There will be too many places in Jewish schools, we are told. But how many of them are not con­trolled by the Ortho­dox?


BRI­TISH JEWRY is cur­rently en­gaged in an un­prece­dented in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pos­si­ble over-pro­vi­sion of places in Jewish schools. The Jewish Lead­er­ship Coun­cil has set up a highly pro­fes­sional com­mis­sion, and last week’s JC de­voted three pages and a leader to the sub­ject. The con­cern may be un­prece­dented, but it is a very good thing. The more our com­mu­nity plans for its fu­ture and max­imises the use of lim­ited re­sources, the bet­ter its chance of sur­vival. The dan­ger is that many will con­clude that, if there are too many places in Jewish schools, open­ing an­other school is un­nec­es­sary or even harm­ful. The leader in the JC spelled it out by say­ing: “Two new sec­ondary schools have ap­peared on the land­scape, send­ing the num­ber of places need­ing to be filled into or­bit and rais­ing the spec­tre of large num­bers of non-Jewish chil­dren in Jewish schools.”

But why is one glar­ingly ob­vi­ous fact be­ing con­sis­tently ig­nored? At present, ev­ery sin­gle Jewish state-aided sec­ondary school in Lon­don is un­der the aus­pices of Ortho­dox au­thor­i­ties. There may be an over-pro­vi­sion of places over­all, but there is a dire short­age of places for chil­dren who do not want to at­tend Ortho­dox in­sti­tu­tions.

Of course, I have no ob­jec­tion to state-aided Ortho­dox schools. Far from it. The Ortho­dox com­mu­nity has long recog­nised the need to pro­vide the op­tion of Jewish school­ing in or­der to safe­guard the Jewish fu­ture and en­sure a high stan­dard of Jewish knowl­edge and com­mit­ment within the com­mu­nity.

How­ever, the de­vel­op­ment of JCoSS — the cross-com­mu­nal sec­ondary school which will open its doors in East Barnet in 2010 and also house Nor­wood’s spe­cial­needs unit for Lon­don — is a step of huge im­por­tance for the fu­ture of the com­mu­nity as a whole. It isn’t a Re­form ini­tia­tive and I can­not speak for the pro­mot­ers of the school. And therein lies some­thing of cru­cial sig­nif­i­cance — it is a gen­uinely cross-com­mu­nal project.

JCoSS is not only sup­ported by the Re­form, Lib­eral and Ma­sorti move­ments, but has the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port of sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of United Syn­a­gogue mem­bers and of un­af­fil­i­ated Jews. If you con­sider that Re­form, Lib­eral and Ma­sorti now ac­count for more than 30 per cent of af­fil­i­ated Jews; that 30 per cent of the com­mu­nity is un­af­fil­i­ated; and that sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of mem­bers of Ortho­dox shuls have ex­pressed the in­ten­tion to send their chil­dren to JCoSS, it is patently ob­vi­ous that a very size­able pro­por­tion of the com­mu­nity is in­ter­ested in a dif­fer­ent kind of sec­ondary school. One that is truly cross-com­mu­nal, not con­trolled by any de­nom­i­na­tion. JCoSS will be dis­tinc­tive in other vi­tal ways as well. It will be as in­clu­sive as pos­si­ble, pro­vid­ing Jewish ed­u­ca­tion for all those who wish to iden­tify with the com­mu­nity. In th­ese days of de­mo­graphic cri­sis, two ap­proaches are ob­serv­able. One is to be ex­tremely re­stric­tive about who is counted into the Jewish com­mu­nity, rais­ing ques­tions about the au­then­tic­ity of con­ver­sions else­where and even re­strict­ing ac­cess to youth web­sites to those who can prove Jewish sta­tus, ex­clu­sively de­fined. The other is to be more in­clu­sive, ad­mit­ting as many of those who con­sider them­selves to be Jewish as pos­si­ble.

We have grown up with a model of Ju­daism which im­plies that there is only one way of be­ing a Jew and liv­ing Ju­daism. JCoSS, how­ever, will recog­nise that Jewish fam­i­lies are more di­verse in their back­ground and com­po­si­tion than ever be­fore. It will reach out to fam­i­lies “where they are” and re­spond to their par­tic­u­lar Jewish needs. It will pro­vide a range of paths for ex­press­ing Jewish iden­tity and pro­mote re­spect and tol­er­ance be­tween chil­dren of var­ied de­nom­i­na­tional back­grounds.

We live at a time when sec­u­lar so­ci­ety presents a huge chal­lenge to faith and faith com­mu­ni­ties. This chal­lenge has in­creased as fun­da­men­tal­ism and ex­trem­ism have be­come the dis­turb­ing pub­lic face of re­li­gion to­day. JCoSS will pro­mote the best val­ues of re­li­gion and af­firm that main­stream Ju­daism is tol­er­ant, dy­namic and re­spon­sive to the needs of so­ci­ety. It will en­able pupils to face up to the spir­i­tual and in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenges of our time. It will sit­u­ate it­self firmly within the Jewish tra­di­tion of ques­tion­ing and chal­leng­ing. It will al­ways coun­sel against ex­ces­sive cer­tainty and judg­men­tal­ism.

The school will seek to root its pupils se­curely in Ju­daism and Jewish val­ues so that its grad­u­ates are mo­ti­vated and equipped to work with oth­ers — of all faiths and none — for the good of so­ci­ety, hu­man­ity and the globe.

JCoSS will be a dif­fer­ent kind of Jewish school from the ex­ist­ing sec­ondary schools. It will seek to meet a dif­fer­ent set of needs, widely ex­pressed by fam­i­lies, par­ents and chil­dren, who make up a large seg­ment of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion. Pro­vi­sion is not just about the num­ber of places avail­able but the kind of pro­vi­sion that is avail­able and the ex­tent to which pro­vi­sion meets needs.

There will be many “tak­ers” for a school that counts peo­ple in, does not drive wedges be­tween par­ents and chil­dren, pro­vides op­tions, en­cour­ages per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, pro­motes Jewish ethics and prompts its pupils to work with oth­ers in the re­pair of so­ci­ety and the globe.

That this comes close to be­ing the model for faith schools in the 21st cen­tury should not be lost sight of.

I hope that con­cern about pos­si­ble over-pro­vi­sion will not panic our lead­er­ship into lis­ten­ing to those voices trou­bled by a diminu­tion of their hege­mony. The sur­vival of our com­mu­nity de­pends upon the recog­ni­tion that no sin­gle strat­egy or model of Ju­daism — or Jewish sec­ondary school — will work for ev­ery­one. Rabbi Dr Tony Bay­field is Head of the Move­ment for Re­form Ju­daism

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