I have a question? Are our Jewish schools really a response to the sense that we only want our children educated amongst other Jews? That seems to be the reality based on the reacton to the possibility of non-Jews attending new Jewish schools that was reported in the JC a few weeks ago. Well, that motivation and the excellent academic results that many Jewish schools produce.
My reason for the question is really a response to a session I ran a few months ago for the Lyons Learning Project. In a room of adults I asked what was the moment that people remembered thinking most strongly about their Judaism as a positive choice for their lives as adults (other than at home in the family). Every single person identified a moment in which they felt a minority or challenged to feel a sense of self-definition in a group of predominantly non-Jews. These moments almost all came from young adulthood.
Now this may be a select group of Jews (anecdotes are not data), but it made me think about the moments of positive choice in my life. The first time was being excluded from my school’s Jewish assembly (where there were lots of Jews). I was challenged to prove I was Jewish at the door and to do so I had to recite a prayer. I never went back to Jewish assembly, but realised that act of exclusion was an important moment because I then found all of my friends (and my closest friends) were not Jewish and, guess what, it didn’t and doesn’t matter. They’ve been the rock in my life at every moment. At primary school my sisters and I were, pretty much, the only Jews and my mother gave the obligatory talk about Pesach to other children – until the mantle passed to me. At university, my closest friends were not Jewish (I chose to be somewhere that Jewish students were not especially numerous). It was in these moments of self-definition, supported by an amazing home life and with the backing of a youth movement, that I understood why it was important to me.
Now I worry. I worry because I just visited a local secondary school in Hertfordshire and I was told the Jewish society has shrunk, probably because so many kids are going to Jewish schools. When we looked at primary schools for our kids in south Hertfordshire in an area where the Jewish population is a sizeable minority (I think percentage it’s in the tens), there were no Jewish kids in the local school. They were at the Jewish primary schools. And through the pull of snobbery, I found myself drawn to the same thing.
It helps that our kids would have time off for the festivals with a rabbi for a dad. It also helped that we have an amazing group of friends who are also parents at the school. But ultimately, I’m not sure the academic progress is markedly different (brilliant teachers aside). I’m pretty sure a positive ethic of learning is not essential or unique to Jews, and whilst the Jewish life and Jewish studies component of the school is added value, I’m not convinced it will have a long term impact (that comes from the home). If anything, parents now find their weekends freed for other things, rather than the stifling of religion school and synagogue services!
But it was devastating to see so few Jews in the non-Jewish schools. Firstly, because I wonder anecdotally if the experience of being a minority in the UK is actually positive for Jewish identification and Jewish identity. Secondly, because it’s good for Jews and non-Jews to mix and learn from each other. We’re such a small minority in this country (maybe 0.5%) we could vanish from real existence save the occasional celebrity if we’re not careful.
All of which begs the question, given that I’m not seeking our schools to close!, what can we do in our community to strengthen Jewish identity in our young people and what can we do in our community to ensure segregation does not happen in any religious groups so that we can really learn from one another and about ourselves.
We fought hard to get out of the ghetto. Let’s not put the walls back up again.
This weekend I’m off to Liverpool for their one day Limmud conference where I’m honoured to be on a panel talking about inclusive Jewish education. My fellow panellists are an impressive lot and I’m looking forward to our discussion. I’m pretty sure I’m having a very London and Hertfordshire experience and can’t wait to hear from a wider perspective.