Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On JFS

As many will know the Court of Appeal has decided that the entrance requirements of JFS breach race-relations legislation. The court ruled, “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or by conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act 1976… No faith school is immune from the prohibition on race discrimination.”
I know very well why the court case was brought. JFS has rejected applications from Jewish children whose mothers were converted under Liberal, Reform and Masorti auspices. This causes pain and distress among many, including some Masorti members who brought the case and have fought it through the courts.


JFS is clearly an outstanding school, assessed as such in each of 39 measures measured by OFSTED in its most recent inspection and it clearly enjoys its status as a school for the Jewish community. ‘Many [of our students] come from families who are totally committed to Judaism and Israel,’ states the School’s website, ‘others are unaware of Jewish belief and practice. We welcome this diversity and embrace the opportunity to have such a broad range of young people developing Jewish values together.’ But there should be no doubting how the school understands the meaning of ‘Jewish values.’ ‘The outlook and practice of the School is Orthodox,’ states the web-site. And again, ‘JFS has always sought to provide a Jewish education to members of the orthodox Jewish faith so that all Jewish children may be provided with an orthodox Jewish education,’ I find this disavowing of interest in those who are not members of the ‘orthodox Jewish faith’ disturbing and sad. Certainly the school has no interest in educating its students in the ways of non-orthodoxy. I’ve been to a range of Catholic and Church of England schools as a visiting Rabbi. It’s only the Jewish schools where I am not welcome as an educator. And of course my tax contributions support JFS and the infrastructure and Jewish education at JFS is supported by many in the broader community, of many denominations.


Rabbi Harvey Belovski, writing in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, made explicit something that JFS and the United Synagogue rarely make so public. Pluralism and Orthodoxy are inimical bedfellows, wrote Rabbi Belovski as he gave up on any desire to be seen as a pluralist. The Orthodox and schools run under Orthodox aegis are not cross-communal. They are sectarian and interested only in those who they deem of being of sufficient Jewish status and interested in Jews who are not Orthodox to the extent that we can be ‘educated’ into becoming Orthodox. So be it.


But is it racist? Not really. The notion that religious ‘faith’ is an emotional or theological state of belief, unconnected to matters such as birth and practice, is a Christian perspective on religious identity, not a Jewish one. Jews have always looked to ritual – a ‘religious’ person is someone who lights candles on Friday night. A woman is a convert if she passes a Bet Din’s enquiry and goes to the Mikvah. And so on. But I do have sympathy for the judges who felt that state-funded religious schools should not be able to access the millions of pounds of taxpayers funding when they act in sectarian ways, blocking access to those who have serious and grounded reasons for wishing to attend, but are rejected on the basis of a sectarian fiat. My hope and prayer is that Jewish education in this country can be more of a cross-communal effort. Indeed there is a tremendous possibility that the soon-to-open JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School), due to open in September 2010, will be just such a place. Our efforts, philanthropy and prayers should be channelled in the direction of strengthening  those Jewish bodies that will support the kind of Judaism we believe in. There – a sentence that even the Orthodox would agree with

2 comments:

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