A little bit of Israel in Glasgow;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
After 22 years as headof Calderwood Lodge, Scotland's only Jewish school, Dianna Wolfson retires this week. She takes Eleanor Caldwell on a tour of her school.

Friday afternoon at Calderwood Lodge Jewish Primary School in Glasgow is always a special time. For 12 pupils in Primary 7 it was even more special because at 5.15am the following Monday, they would be setting off on a week-long trip to Israel. For them, Glasgow was going to Israel, while for the eight left at home, Israel was coming to Glasgow.

The children going to Israel with two of their Hebrew teachers were ready to see the sights in Jerusalem, learn more about their faith, visit both the north and south of the country, meet their pen friends and have fun. Those in Glasgow were set to embrace Israel at home, with activities including a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at Kelvingrove and a chance to try some Israeli (chalah) baking.

Calderwood Lodge is the only Jewish school in Scotland. Housed in a magnificent villa overlooking Newlands Park on the south side of Glasgow, the primary school was founded in 1962 by the Glasgow Jewish community and the British Zionist Federation.

It was taken over in 1982 by Strathclyde Region, moved to Glasgow City Council in 1996 and since last year has been administered by East Renfrewshire. After "an uninterrupted relationship" with Calderwood Lodge since 1963, first as a parent and for the last 22 years as headteacher, Dianna Wolfson retires at the end of this term.

On a tour around the building with her, the school feels much like any other - but with constant reminders of its differences. Crowded walls display reproductions of Roman bottles and multiplication tables alongside Jewish-based work, an information board on Israel, a crafted silhouette of Jerusalem the Golden and, in an infant class, a giant-sized Hebrew alphabet.

At the entrance to the school's nursery, Hebrew teacher Miriam Sabba points out a table display of various items of the faith including a mini red velvet Torah - the Jewish holy scroll. In the classroom itself, she points to the "magic book tree", which offers the children both familiar English and traditional Jewish books. "After reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar in English," she says, "I was delighted when one child came back to school and straight away took home the Hebrew version."

After an informal introduction in nursery, the 200 pupils at Calderwood begin to learn Hebrew in P1. At this stage they make up their own prayer book with only pictures representing the main prayers. Formal reading and writing lessons begin in P2 and in P3, pupils get their first real prayer book. A concert with Hebrew song and drama celebrates the event. Study of the language continues until P7.

"I'm proud to say that many of our pupils are achieving a National Certificate Module 1 in Hebrew by the end of Primary 7," Mrs Wolfson says. "Many of the children also belong to Jewish youth groups or have strong family links, and go to Israel for the summer, which improves their command of the language greatly."

Hebrew study continues alongside French, which children begin to learn in P6 as part of the national scheme for modern languages in the primary school. She says that the visiting teacher of French was "absolutely thrilled" with the standard of French in the school.

Not all members of staff at Calderwood Lodge are Jewish. Depute head Maureen Blacklaw, for example, says that she did not seek out Calderwood for any particular reason: "I really liked the school when I visited it and was delighted to have been offered the post. I just feel I've been embraced by the faith."

P23 teacher Dinah Tennent followed in her mother's footsteps in becoming a teacher at the school. "As a non-Jewish person," she says, "I've learned so much about my own religion through learning about Judaism. I can now really see where Christ comes from. I greatly admire the absolute commitment the children in the school have to their faith."

Nor are all the pupils Jewish. Approximately 10 per cent come from other faiths including Catholic, Protestant and Muslim. "I don't like quoting numbers like this, because the non-Jewish children are just part of the whole school community," Mrs Wolfson says.

"They all come on board with the school's own Jewish-based programme of religious and moral teaching. Parents of other faiths are often looking for a school that appreciates the value of religion and they find this quite a caring school,"she says. "After all, a lot of Jewish values are shared with Islam and Christianity. We're all decent people who can look beyond the simple differences in ways of worship."

The children who come to Calderwood are drawn from the 6,500-strong Jewish community in greater Glasgow. How much the children's experience of being at a Jewish school influences their observance of the faith in later life varies, Mrs Wolfson says.

"We can do so much in school, but it really depends on lifestyle in the home. In families where there is perhaps not such a strong religious ethos (possibly where one parent is not Jewish), I think the school offers the children an equilibrium. On leaving Calderwood, there are inevitably some children who are leaving behind a lot of Jewish observance."

The school year is the standard August to June, but holidays are at different times. Mrs Wolfson explains: "We have so many festivals to get through!". These events are prepared for and celebrated in different ways.

In the month before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), the shofar (the traditional ram's horn) is blown in school by a different boy every morning. In accordance with Jewish tradition during this period of preparation, pupils are also encouraged to focus their thoughts on improving themselves. At Hanukkah, while P1 pupils learn of its story and celebrations, children in P7 tackle more weighty issues such as the freedom to practise religion.

The day of commemoration for victims of the Holocaust in April represents a very different issue for the school. Having been uncertain how to deal with this, Mrs Wolfson was delighted to be introduced to a "very powerful" children's book, The Tattooed Torah, by American writer Marvell Ginsburg, which offers an allegorical interpretation of historical events. She says:

"The first time I read this to the children, one boy was very perceptive and said 'It's not about Torahs is it? It's about people'."

This year, Israel's 50th anniversary has provided an extra celebration. In addition to activities on the day itself, P7 pupils have done a project and prepared a database about Glasgow people, particularly those with associations with Calderwood Lodge, who have gone to live in Israel. The school has put on a special celebratory end-of-term production, which included a traditional Israeli line dance. A "Happy Birthday Israel" banner in Hebrew takes pride of place in the school hall.

For the last half-hour of every Friday afternoon, pupils attend a Shabbat gathering in preparation for the traditional Erev Shabbat family meal. An enactment of the meal by four pupils, with candles, traditional blessings and prayers, precedes traditional Hebrew songs, stories and sometimes quizzes. P5 teacher Ingrid Levin conducts her choir singing Hebrew songs, and musical accompaniment is offered by the school's 13-piece orchestra. The ceremony concludes with the more familiar practice of distributing the week's awards to pupils.

So what's special about Calderwood? P7 pupils Gary Hill, Raina Morris, Ralph Angell and Paul Mendelsohn, who are about to leave for Mearns Castle High, variously describe it as warm, exciting, friendly and sociable. Judith Golombok and Katy McDougall, both in P4, agree that they have loved "making new Jewish friends".

Mrs Wolfson, who admits that she is looking forward to retiring and to possible involvement with further development of the 5 to 14 religious and moral education programme, says she might also pursue the history of the magnificent Calderwood Lodge building.

On the walls of the entrance hall, the familiar school mission statement, "To encourage the children to work to their full potential in a happy, stimulating, caring, (Jewish) environment with an effective home and school partnership", is lined up beside Calderwood Lodge's own distinctive mission statement in Hebrew from Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself".

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