Rabbis under fire in fight for school

30th July 1999 at 01:00
A top Jewish secondary is in turmoil after two governors launch attack on its ultra-orthodox leadership. Chris Bunting reports.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX rabbis have a "stranglehold" over one of the country's most respected Jewish schools and a group of teachers is showing "utter contempt" for the religious beliefs of pupils, according to dissident parent governors.

The Hasmonean high school, a top performer in London's exam league tables, has been without a headteacher since December. The school has been shaken by threats of parents withdrawing voluntary financial support and an appeal to the charity commissioners to sack its religious leadership.

The controversy erupted when parents were sent a seven-page letter by parent-governors Robin Cohen and Michael Pollak. They claim they are fighting "for the heart of the school" against a board of ultra-orthodox rabbis, charged with overseeing its religious ethos.

The parent-governors say the clerics, associated with purist groups that do not support the secular state of Israel, control a school which is out of touch with parents from a much broader spectrum of Orthodox Judaism.

Mr Cohen and Mr Pollak, who have called for the resignation of the chair of governors, the school's trustees and its religious leadership, claim:

"Teachers are recruited for the ability to 'fit in' as much as for their classroom skills. Some teachers display utter contempt for the ... background of the majority of their pupils."

They say they are "frustrated with the stranglehold of a small group of individuals" on decision-making. The two also want major reforms to the grant-maintained school's Jewish studies department, where only a minority of the staff are qualified teachers: "Jewish studies cannot be taught in an atmosphere of disrespect between staff and pupils.

"We believe the school should project a more positive approach to the state of Israel."

But the crux of the attack - covered extensively in the Jewish Chronicle - is accusations that the rabbis have left the Mill Hill school without a headteacher since December because of their refusal to accept a candidate who did not accord with their ultra-orthodox views.

A "senior Anglo-Jewish educator" was put forward by Mr Cohen and Mr Pollak after "governors failed to attract any application of consequence" to replace outgoing head Dr Dena Coleman, but the rabbis vetoed the candidate without meeting him.

Mr Cohen and Mr Pollak claim plans to appoint a non-Jewish interim head were also frustrated and the rabbis blocked a visit by a senior Israeli rabbi.

After a stormy annual general meeting, attended by 500 people, Hasmonean's governors last week wrote to parents accepting the need for change. The letter said teachers were being reminded that "they are required at all times to be sensitive to the varied backgrounds of the students. No student should be denigrated on account of their opinions within Orthodox Judaism."

But Howard Glyn, vice chairman of governors, insisted: "The governing body does not think that the rabbis are out of touch with the parents of the school or with the pupil population.

"Throughout the time I have been with the school the appointment of senior members of staff has had the approval of all the rabbis."

He denied that the non-Jewish interim candidates had been blocked, claiming that none was considered satisfactory.


Jewish groups as a percentage of synagogue members in London

Mainstream Orthodox, the background of most of Hasmonean's pupils: 55.4

The Ultra-Orthodox, associated with Hasmonean's board of rabbis: 8.7

Eastern European Sephardi Jews: 4.4

Reform, Liberal and Masorti Jews, who are unlikely to send children to the Hasmonean, 29.5

Figures provided by the Board of Deputies of British Jews

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