Village life in the city

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Laurie Rosenberg wants his small inner-city Jewish school to become a centre for the community

Not for one moment could you mistake Stoke Newington or Stamford Hill for villages. There are few, if any, pretty little cottages, and you're more likely to be run over by one of those new bendy buses than a tractor.

But the whole notion of rus in urbe, the creation of the village in the inner city, holds a fascination for me, and it's all to do with the concept of creating community.

The village is one paradigm of community, with the church, village hall and the school working together in prayer, celebration, and learning. This synergy between faith, fate and future could have a powerful impact on our inner city schools if they were able to take on a role as village centres.

And I am not simply advocating the current trend of making schools into social warehouses. The Government's extended wrap-around care initiative, unless carefully thought through, could mean that we open schools from 7am with a bowl of cereal, and then knacker the kids with the national curriculum, provide some beans on toast, then a range of informal activities and home for 10pm, with three sets of staff on different shifts!

To make and create community there needs to be a spiritual purpose.

And that spiritual purpose is about building opportunities for the community to get together to learn, play, celebrate, commemorate, debate and contemplate. It must be organised yet organic, with natural growth to enable learning programmes and opportunities that can inspire both children and adults. Somewhere to go for information and advice, to set strategies for community growth, to be healed and to be listened to.

All these activities used to take place in our villages, in the post office, village store, the pub, outside the school, at church, attending parish council meetings or rehearsing for the Christmas panto in the village hall - sometimes at the same time!

So what's this got to do with my small Jewish primary in Hackney?

Simon Marks is a voluntary-aided school in Stoke Newington. It was established in 1956 as the Clapton Jewish Day School and moved on to its current site in 1973. Since the late Sixties, however, the Jewish community has undergone a demographic change.

There has been an extraordinary growth of the Charedi community (the ultra-Orthodox) and a rapid decline in the more mainstream community. This loss has had a dramatic impact on our school. However, Simon Marks is now appealing to a new set of Jewish families who are not members of a synagogue, or who have become disillusioned or disaffiliated from the traditional community, and they are attracted by the school's palpable Jewish spirituality and academic successes.

This set me thinking.

If Simon Marks reaches out to those who have no communal affiliation, then the school itself should provide the sense of kehilla (a Hebrew word conveying the notion of community with commitment) that could bind them to the larger Jewish community.

To do this we have to make a fundamental shift in the way we see ourselves, from being a group of teachers to becoming a team of educators, with a shared vision of what it takes to create and sustain community, as well as a vision of what it means to be an educated Jew in the modern world. For teachers who have been in the school for years, this is a difficult challenge to grasp and accept, particularly the perception that I am beginning to shatter traditional boundaries between the parents and the staff - but this is one of the absolute non-negotiable elements in creating community.

To achieve community we have to provide more opportunities for parents, children and families to learn together, and find creative ways of remodelling our tired Seventies building to make it a warm, welcoming and vibrant place to gather throughout the week, and on Shabbat.

This doesn't mean that children don't have their own classrooms, where they engage with the national curriculum, Hebrew and Jewish studies, but it does mean that lifelong learning becomes an implicit value, and that collaborative learning is the key to maintaining achievement, excitement and inspiration. It's all part of the school's stated vision and purpose.

How are we doing, so far?

Already the school has opened a learning and resource centre, housed in an old library area, and I encourage parents and others to use it during the day and after school, with a strategically-placed coffee machine.

Simon Marks is seeking funding to develop our stark, caged open asphalt playground into an all-weather play and sports facility with a fitness area and changing rooms.

I am also thinking about transforming the single-storey nursery into a duplex Early Learning Academy with a cafe, parent and baby facilities, toddler group, and foundation phase learning area - with additional spaces for professional research and development and a Jewish family education centre.

Our hall is about to be refurbished to take on the multi-purpose role of a synagogue, community centre and drama space. And we have secured significant private funding to landscape the drab outside areas of the school.

And I haven't even started on plans to provide an all-day kosher cafe. All this has been made possible by a working partnership with key community fundraisers such as Stafford Fertleman who can share the dream and articulate the vision.

There's nothing new here. It was all in the village, and for many Jews, just two or three generations ago that village was the Stetl of Eastern Europe.

What I am proposing is the notion that schools become the new village centres, where lifelong learning is the glue that binds families, but also where the school becomes the place where communities are empowered to make their own decisions over local issues. This is another shift away from town hall politics to the notion of a parish council. And if there's a spiritual purpose then there's an added bonus.

For Simon Marks primary it is a guarantee of a future, and our way of creating a community of faith. We must look forward, to learn from the past, to inspire every generation to ensure that Jewish continuity is maintained through lifelong learning.

Laurie Rosenberg is head of Simon Marks Jewish primary, Hackney

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