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