Praying for a Jewish classroom

27th February 1998 at 00:00
One of the country's minority communities is looking to its schools to ensure its survival - and now three more have got state funding, reports Simon Rocker

When the Government last month announced the first two Muslim schools to win state support, British Jews were celebrating, too. For along with the Muslim breakthrough came approval for three more voluntary-aided or grant-maintained Jewish schools, two of them still to be built.

The expansion of Jewish schooling has received little attention but it is significant for a minority community long held up as a model of integration.

British Jews are working hard to preserve their distinctive character. It is no exaggeration to say that Jewish education is widely regarded as a life-and-death matter, the only way to reverse falling numbers and ensure the community's survival into the next century.

The Government's decision will raise the number of state-aided Jewish schools to 28 in England (and one in Scotland) and more bids are in the pipeline. Opponents of segregated schooling such as Liberal Rabbi Julia Neuberger are a minority voice. Instead, the running is being made by people like the Chasidic businessman Benjamin Perl - a friend of John Major - who two years ago launched a campaign to raise pound;25 million to build more schools.

Public reaction is positive. Take, for instance, a recent report on South Hertfordshire's growing Jewish communities commissioned to help them plan their development. It found that the new Orthodox primary school planned to open next year was a "sacred cow" which "few if any criticise".

In London, Redbridge's voluntary-aided King Solomon high school, which took its first pupils in 1993, was so popular that it was able to bring forward the opening of a sixth form.

Enrolment at independent or aided Jewish schools has risen 50 per cent since the 1960s, according to the last community-wide education survey in 1991. Already then, a third of primary-age Jewish children were being educated in Jewish schools, and a quarter of teenagers - and that was before the creation of several new schools. With more on the way, it may not be long before most Jewish 11-year-olds are graduates of Jewish primaries.

Undoubtedly, many parents turn to denominational schools out of dissatisfaction with the secular system's academic standards and perceived lack of moral values. But equally, many are attracted to the idea that only full-time Jewish education can shore up the identity of the next generation.

The old system of part-time synagogue classes on Sunday mornings and the odd evening has fallen into discredit. And to those who argue that religious education should be a matter for the synagogue or the home, parents argue why should their children be burdened with extra work after school hours?

The drive to open more schools is not the only phenomenon. More money is being made available for other initiatives, in particular youth tours to Israel. It reflects a decisive change of heart among the philanthropists who set the community's fund-raising agenda.

Historically, most of the donations given by British Jews to Jewish causes went to Israel. A survey of the top Jewish charities at the start of the decade revealed that 50 per cent of the yield was going abroad, five times as much as to education and youth at home.

"We have given to Israel at the expense of our own viability," wrote Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his influential book, Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?

Israel's claim on the diaspora's financial support has reduced now that its existence seems more secure. As a result, Anglo-Jewish thoughts have turned to home. The Jewish population has dropped from 400,000 in the early 1960s to under 300,000 at the beginning of the 1990s and the revelation two years ago that up to 44 per cent of young men were marrying outside the community gave new urgency to the educational campaign.

The champions of "Israel before all else" began to bow to the new reality. Early last year the Joint Israel Appeal, the community's most powerful fund-raising machine merged with Jewish Continuity, the fledgling organisation set up by the Chief Rabbi to promote domestic causes.

The United Jewish Israel Appeal, as the new hybrid is called, plans to spend pound;3 million of its pound;14m budget this year on Anglo-Jewish youth and education. It's a long way from parity with Israel, but it's a significant start.

Around pound;800,000 of that is to go towards training teachers, community professionals and educational lay leaders. For investment in teacher training has lagged far behind that in building schools, producing the inevitable shortage of qualified Jewish studies staff.

The pay-off in terms of increased Jewish commitment will not be visible quickly. There are sceptics, like Bernard Wasserstein, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and author of Vanishing Diaspora, a pessimistic study of European Jewry.

Hope in Jewish day schools was "probably misplaced", he argued in the book. "A high percentage of Catholic children in Britain were educated in Church schools but there seemed to be little relationship between attendance at such schools and subsequent levels of religious observance." But the community's lay leaders are not inclined to heed donnish Cassandras.

Even if Jewish schools don't turn out many potential rabbis, arguably they will produce children with a stronger cultural identity.

We shall have to wait for the demographic reports in 20 years' time to find out. By then, of course, other minorities besides Muslims may have concluded that their best chance of survival lies in having their own schooling.

Simon Rocker is a senior writer with the Jewish Chronicle


There are more than 7,000 denominational schools in England accounting for roughly one quarter of the pupil population.

They break down as follows:

Anglican: 4,597 primary and 200 secondary

Catholic: 1,777 primary and 361 secondary

Methodist: 28 primary (plus others shared with the Church of England)

Jewish: 21 primary, 4 secondary

Muslim: 2

Others: 75 primary 174 secondary

(Non denominational: 12,000 primary, 2,800 secondary)

Figures taken from Statistics of Education 1996.

Statistics published last week by the Office for Standards in Education demonstrate why religious schools are so popular: Catholic and Anglican schools did better in terms of the "standards achieved by pupils"; the "quality of education"; and the "school's climate". Denominational schools also achieve better than average national curriculum test scores and GCSE results.

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