Farewell to the school that changed our lives
ACOUPLE OF weeks ago we attended an event which I suppose comes to all parents. A moment of happiness tinged with melancholy, of pride tinged with a little regret, of looking to the future tinged with nostalgia for something irretrievably gone. It was the last day of primary school for my youngest son.
And we said goodbye to Moriah Jewish Day School after 14 years and three sons. There was a touching, joyous, farewell evening and then, at the end, I was seized with the thought that I’d probably never stand in the school hall again. Well, maybe once or twice perhaps, though I really can’t think why it might be even that many.
After all those mock seders, and Chanukah bazaars and plays and parents evenings, this was it.
Sending the boys to Moriah hadn’t been the natural thing to do at all. First there was us. Neither my wife nor I attended a Jewish school and we are both Liberal Jews. Moriah is a United Synagogue school. We wondered about having the boys wear tzitzit to class. And would they find it confusing that our own practices were different to those being taught in school?
My dad told us not to worry. We shouldn’t fuss about the whole thing too much. He said his entire formal schooling had been a few weeks in the Trans Siberian Railway school, which hadn’t stopped him becoming a university professor. Would they come home Orthodox Jews unable to relate to our Judaism? He laughed: “It will probably be an inoculation”.
A turning point came for me when I picked up my oldest from a local nursery and he started singing Christmas carols in the back of the car. I thought “Well, if he’s going to start singing religious songs anyway, they may as well be ours”.
But once we were sure in our own mind that we wanted to go ahead, we found that it wasn’t as simple as that. Moriah needed a certificate that proved we were Jewish and we couldn’t provide one. We had married in a Reform synagogue and, unusually, so had both sets of parents. Beyond that, being the children of refugees, the evidence was hard to come by.
I spent ages on the phone to someone charged with certification until eventually a document was accepted because it showed my wife’s grandmother had attended a Jewish kindergarten. It wasn’t an experience I’d wish One son starts sixth form as his brother leaves primary school Moriah made the case for the good that faith schools can do on anyone else and I was delighted when the courts rendered it unnecessary.
What started as slightly unfamiliar to us, quickly became unremarkable. We stopped thinking of the tzitzit as anything more than school uniform. We forgot that everyone else’s children weren’t celebrating the same festivals. I still recall the bemusement on the face of our nanny as she explained that the boys would need to bring in some grapes tomorrow. “Because it’s new year for…” She glanced at me, worried she’d misunderstood something, “for…trees.”
The boys didn’t question that our practices were different at home. Never once. School was school and home was home and it seemed never to occur to them to ask.
But they did gain a knowledge of Jewish law and custom, an ability to read Hebrew, a knowledge of how to celebrate the festivals and a confidence, an at homeness, with their religion, that has helped them identify as Jews and feel comfortable in the community. I think it has given the boys something precious.
And I think it did make the case for the good that faith schools can do. There was a warmth there, a feeling of belonging, something beyond an ordinary schooling.
I think we benefited enormously from that. Moriah is a small school and like all such institutions it will go up and down, have good years and bad years and be enormously affected by the comings and goings of staff. And it faces the same demographic challenges as many other Jewish schools.
It’s an odd feeling that those challenges won’t be ours, that who parks in the school car park, and whether they had the right sticker, is now someone else’s problem and someone else’s gossip.
I mean whatever will we talk about? Goodbye old friend and thank you.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times.