Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view: New JFS head­teacher Rachel Fink

For­mer head girl of JFS Rachel Fink re­turned this week — to run the school

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY SI­MON ROCKER

WHEN JFS stu­dents re­turned af­ter half-term this week, new head­teacher Rachel Fink was wait­ing for them.

The for­mer head of the girls’ divi­sion of Has­monean High School says she chose to start now rather than wait till the new aca­demic year in or­der to have half a term to fa­mil­iarise her­self with her new school. “I am not the per­son who walks in to make change for change’s sake,” she says. “I want to hear what peo­ple have to say and see for my­self how things are.”

Her bright per­son­al­ity is matched by the colour of the scarves that wreathe her head. But she is aware of some be­mused par­ents won­der­ing if the ap­point­ment of a hair-cov­er­ing teacher from Has­monean sig­nalled a plan to shift JFS re­li­giously to the right.

“Peo­ple see a head cov­er­ing and they think the mad frum­mer has come to town,” she laughs. “That’s ab­so­lutely not who I am.” Her nat­u­ral home, she in­sists, is the “United Syn­a­gogue and Bnei Akiva”.

From a tra­di­tion­ally-minded United Syn­a­gogue fam­ily in Wem­b­ley, she at­tended Yavneh, the lo­cal Jewish pri­mary (which merged with an­other school to be­come Si­nai). Although she gained a place at pri­vate South Hamp­stead Girls’ School — “I was just cu­ri­ous to see if I was good enough to get in” — she opted in­stead for JFS.

Its res­i­den­tial pro­gramme in Is­rael, then at Gi­vat Wash­ing­ton and last­ing five months — en­joyed by her older sis­ter — was a def­i­nite draw. It proved to be a “stand-out ex­pe­ri­ence” for her. “I came back speak­ing flu­ent He­brew,” she says. “That’s the way to do it, to im­merse your­self in the lan­guage.”

But she is not so sure that in “the slightly more pro­tec­tive, he­li­copter­par­ent so­ci­ety” of to­day, fam­i­lies would be will­ing to send their chil­dren away for so long.

Although four of the last five heads of JFS have been women, she can still re­call the nov­elty of se­lect­ing a fe­male head. When Jo Wager­man was ap­pointed head in 1985, “I re­mem­ber I was in a GCSE tex­tiles les­son when it was an­nounced over the tan­noy, and you could hear the cheer­ing along the cor­ri­dors, be­cause peo­ple thought they wouldn’t ap­point a woman to the job. She was a real pow­er­house.” Rachel Fink was Jo Wager­man’s first head girl. (Head boy was Daniel Rose­laar, now rabbi of the US shul, Alei Tzion, where she be­longs).

Post-JFS, on a Bnei Akiva gap year in Is­rael, she picked a pome­gran­ate or two on kib­butz, although mostly she worked in the chil­dren’s house. While her par­ents pre­ferred her to take a vo­ca­tional course at uni­ver­sity, she did not get the grades for phar­macy — which she did not re­ally want to do — and was happy to end up study­ing chem­istry at UCL.

She and her hus­band Stu­art mar­ried a cou­ple of weeks af­ter her finals and headed off to Is­rael to set­tle on kib­butz. “We re­alised quite quickly that while we loved it there, it was not re­ally a long-term prospect. I wanted to train as a teacher, they said I’d never man­age. They thought some quiet lit­tle English girl wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Mov­ing nearer Jerusalem, she com­bined sec­re­tar­ial work at a chem­i­cal com­pany with teacher-train­ing at Mich­lalah, a women’s col­lege. While Mich­lalah was Or­tho­dox, she did teach­ing prac­tice at a sec­u­lar high school, Bo­yar. “One of the things I liked best at Bo­yar was it was full of highly ed­u­cated, non-re­li­gious Is­raelis who knew the Tanach [He­brew Bi­ble],” she re­calls. “They had a to­tally dif­fer­ent take on it but that’s won­der­ful. Ju­daism be­longs to all of us.”

When the fam­ily re­lo­cated to Bet Shemesh “along with all the An­g­los”, she taught chem­istry for seven years in a re­li­gious Zion­ist high school. In 1997, seven girls on a hike were slaugh­tered in a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

“They were my stu­dents, that was my class,” she says. “I didn’t go be­cause I was about to have a baby. It was ter­ri­ble. One of the girls who was killed was from a fam­ily of Rus­sian-speak­ing im­mi­grants who had been on the ul­pan on the kib­butz where we had lived, so I had known them for years.”

Deal­ing with some­thing like that was “the hard­est thing in ed­u­ca­tion. I said af­ter that ex­pe­ri­ence, if I can get through that, I will man­age with any­thing that comes my way.”

In 2001 she and Stu­art took the “dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion” to re­turn to the UK. Work was tak­ing him abroad for long pe­ri­ods and it reached the point “where we said it’s im­por­tant for us to be to­gether as a fam­ily, how­ever Zion­ist we were.”

Barely a fort­night had passed since the re­turn of the Finks and their four chil­dren to London when she found her­self stand­ing in a class­room in Has­monean as a chem­istry teacher at the start of the spring term. Such was the dif­fi­culty in re­cruit­ing science teach­ers, she no­ticed on the girls’ ex­er­cise books, the names of sev­eral teach­ers had been scrib­bled out.

“Some girl said ‘Shall we bother writ­ing your name on the book?’ I said, ‘Mark my words, I shall be here longer than you.’”

Eight years later she had risen to be­come head of the girls’ school in Mill Hill. For a time, Stu­art also taught at the school — he has since moved to the pri­mary sec­tor — and all their chil­dren have gone there. Their youngest is due to leave this sum­mer and will, like her older sis­ter, go to a sem­i­nary where girls can learn Tal­mud.

Dur­ing her Has­monean ca­reer, the big­gest change is that “the num­ber of stu­dents on roll has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally”. In Septem­ber, more than 90 girls will join in year seven, com­pared to the 60 to 65 a year when she started.

While Has­monean al­ways does “su­perbly well” in ex­ams, she says,

Peo­ple thought they wouldn’t ap­point a woman to the job’

the girls’s GCSE re­sults last year were “quite re­mark­able”, their Progress 8 score — re­flect­ing progress from en­try to GCSE — putting them in the top five state schools in Eng­land.

But she is keen to stress that aca­demic achieve­ment is not the only path to suc­cess and dur­ing her eight years in charge of the girls’ school, she over­saw an in­crease in vo­ca­tional op­tions.

She presided too over a re­vamp of Jewish stud­ies with “a firm fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing tex­tual skills for the girls. Be­cause they go to sem, they need to be well-equipped.” Whereas their study of bib­li­cal com­men­tary used to be mainly con­fined to Rashi, now they ex­plore more widely. “The best com­ment I got from a stu­dent class was that it was harder but more re­ward­ing. ‘I like how all the com­men­ta­tors dis­agree with one an­other, so I can have my own opin­ion’,they told me.” Two other de­vel­op­ments give her par­tic­u­lar pride: firstly, out­reach to other schools. “We were do­ing it long be­fore the term ‘Bri­tish val­ues’ ever ap­peared on the school radar.”

A few years ago she took an in­ter­faith course, the Cam­bridge Co-Ex­ist Lead­er­ship Pro­gramme, mak­ing con­tacts which led her to a part­ner­ship with the Is­lamia Girls School. As well as re­cip­ro­cal vis­its to each other’s schools, the girls have taken part in joint Mitz­vah Day ac­tiv­i­ties. She has also forged links with nearby Copthall Girls’ School and in­tro­duced vol­un­teer­ing for girls at an af­ter­school home­work club lo­cally for the chil­dren of So­mali refugees. “That’s been go­ing for six or seven years. It’s won­der­ful. We have got Jews, Mus­lims, Chris­tians all to­gether, ev­ery­body’s get­ting on beau­ti­fully.”

When a few years ago, a group of 13-year-old Hasmo girls won a com­pe­ti­tion run by the Wings for Hope char­ity, some peo­ple won­dered if it would be fea­si­ble for the school to ac­cept the prize — a 10-day trip to In­dia. “I said ‘How am I not go­ing to send them?’ We had the most amaz­ing week.” The other “big thing” was work on men­tal health. Four years ago, she was at a Part­ner­ships for Jewish Schools meet­ing for heads dis­cussing fu­ture pri­or­i­ties. “Peo­ple were talk­ing about fi­nance and suc­ces­sion plan­ning and re­cruit­ment. I put my hand up and said, ‘Men­tal health among stu­dents’.”

Pupils may have been grap­pling with is­sues be­fore but schools have in­creas­ingly be­come aware of their in­ci­dence, she ex­plains. As well as help­ing to ini­ti­ate a Pa­jes pro­gramme to train teach­ers about men­tal health across Jewish schools, at Has­monean she took such ini­tia­tives as re­cruit­ing its first emo­tional well­be­ing prac­ti­tioner last year. “It’s not a stigma to talk about men­tal health at Has­monean and that’s our big­gest achieve­ment.”

Her hus­band — “my great­est cheer­leader” — prompted her to go for the JFS job. “The op­por­tu­nity to lead the school that gave me so much as a stu­dent was an ab­so­lute dream come true. So I thought, why not go back to where it all be­gan?”

At 48, she has many years still to give to Jewish ed­u­ca­tion. Ev­ery stu­dent must find their own con­nec­tion to Ju­daism, she says. “For some peo­ple, that’s re­li­gious ob­ser­vance, for oth­ers, spir­i­tu­al­ity, for some a con­nec­tion with Is­rael. It’s many dif­fer­ent things to many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. For some, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of all those things.

“I have a quite holis­tic ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion. It’s more than just a set of exam re­sults. It’s about who you are go­ing to be as a hu­man be­ing, what can you give to so­ci­ety, how can you help your com­mu­nity and how do you in­ter­act with the world around you.”

It’s not a stigma to talk about men­tal health’

Above: Rachel Fink with JFS Stu­dents

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