ORTHODOX Jewish schools in the UK are “facing crisis”, according to a report in the JT.
Indeed, coverage of this “crisis” within the charedi press suggests a state of widespread panic, with a “vaad” (committee) made of learned rabbis being frantically set up to address the problems.
The cause is state interference in what can and cannot be taught — all dressed up in “British values”.
The main issues seem to be around acceptance of same-sex relationships and transgender people — both of which orthodoxy cannot ever condone.
Thus, their schools will always have difficulty in preaching the sort of acceptance and tolerance demanded by Ofsted.
It is not just LGBT issues that are the sticking point. Other bones of contention are that the teaching of Creation — the biblical account when taught literally — is at odds with the scientific truth, so any schools teaching that the world is a mere 6,000 years old is going to hit difficulty.
Indeed, there has been a campaign by frightened charedi educators to be allowed to continue teaching the literal interpretation, rather than face up to the scientific facts (which, actually, are not at odds with the Torah view).
Lest JT readers turn away, thinking this isn’t an issue that concerns the more enlightened modern Orthodox establishments that most of our own kids frequent, don’t be fooled — this obligation to adhere to British values might actually affect more of us than just the charedim.
And, in fact, the situation looks like it is moving up a gear as Britain’s school inspection body is currently demanding new powers to tackle conservative faith schools that spread beliefs that “clash with British values”.
While it may be true that modern Orthodox schools have no problem with teaching that the world is millions of years old, and may not be afraid to acknowledge LGBT issues, there are probably still ways that our schools could fall foul of state inspectors, particularly when it comes to gender equality — arguably a central tenet of “British values”.
After all, let’s face it, Orthodox Judaism is not gender-equal (in terms of opportunity).
Inspectors may well shudder at finding “sexist” literature in faith schools (as reported recently), but surely most of the Jewish texts, if they could read them, would be regarded as deeply sexist, from the Torah to Gemara — and let’s not even mention the prayer that boys say every day in most schools in which they express their thanks for not being born female (hard to see how that one can concur with British values).
Schools might offer the same secular educational opportunities to boys and girls, but many Jewish co-educational schools have different educational opportunities for girls and boys when it comes to religious education.
Boys may finish school later or earlier (or both) to fit more in, may have to go in on Sunday and may learn different subjects (e.g. Gemara is generally taught to boys only).
Schools, of course, offer differential opportunities to boys and girls when it comes to assemblies, festivals and communal prayer.
This lack of parity has been highlighted recently by the National Secular Society, which is a pressure group campaigning for the end of faith schools.
They claim that girls and boys having a different religious curriculum is a “clear breach of equality law”.
They pick out schools in the North-West, including Manchester’s King David High School campus, for its separate Yavneh streams which do not offer the same religious curriculum, and Broughton Jewish Primary School which was, according to NSS, forced to change their website with regard to what they say about separate provision for boys and girls in Kodesh, following NSS complaints (though I am not sure if their actual provision has changed). Perhaps the state might be happy to tolerate the fact that only boys get the chance to lead prayers and, indeed, take leading roles in communal activities — but will they continue to be as tolerant of the traditional Shabbat assembly for younger children?
These delightful icons of Jewish schooling continue to preach that there is a “Shabbos mummy” who prepares the Friday night meal while the “Shabbos daddy” goes to shul.
Will these traditional roles still be tolerated or will they be considered to “clash with British values” that condemn the idea that there are different roles for men and women?
Perhaps even the idea of a Shabbos mummy and Shabbos daddy will fall foul of the school inspectors in the future.
They might one day sometimes prefer there to be two Shabbos mummies in order to be more inclusive.
All our Jewish schools are under threat, not just the charedi ones. All Jewish schools may need to adapt to survive and this may involve more mainstream schools teaching girls and boys the same religious curriculum (girls could be taught to lead prayers and even lehen, in women’s prayer groups for example).
If we want to keep our Jewish schools Jewish, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss our charedi brethren’s fight with state interference quite so readily.