What's behind the rising popularity of Jewish education in the UK?

The popularity of Jewish education in Britain has risen dramatically over the past 20 years, according to a report the Institute for Jewish Policy Research released on Thursday.

The number of Jewish children in Jewish schools has nearly doubled since the mid- 1990s and is now at an alltime high, according to the report. Almost two-thirds of all Jewish school-age children are now in Jewish schools, up about 40% from 20 years ago.

The report – The Rise and Rise of Jewish Schools in the United Kingdom – was co-authored by JPR researchers Dr.

Daniel Staetsky and Dr. Jonathan Boyd, as part of new partnership with the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

“The continuing growth in demand for Jewish school places is a huge and wellearned ‘vote of confidence’ in our community’s excellent schools, which provide an outstanding education alongside a positive Jewish ethos,” said Gillian Merron, chief executive of the board.

“The growth of the British Jewish school sector over time is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Boyd. “The reasons why it has happened need to be much better understood, not only for the sake of our own community, but also because many other Diaspora communities can learn from the British example.”

Of 30,900 children in Jewish schools, 57% are in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools and 43% in mainstream ones, the 2014/15 survey shows.

Twenty years ago, the proportions were 45% haredi and 55% mainstream, a shift that reflects the changing composition of the British-Jewish community. Factors for the haredi population in choosing a Jewish school are clear: kosher food, prayer services and Jewish teaching are vital to their children’s education.

However, the increase in enrollment is not exclusively due to growth of the haredi population. More than 40% of mainstream Jewish schoolage children are now in Jewish schools, compared with about 25% 20 years ago. That translates into an increase of more than 4,000 children. To accommodate the increase, 11 new mainstream schools have sprung up since the mid-1990s, most of them in London. The report notes that enrollment in the mainstream Jewish school sector has become increasingly London- centric, rising 72% since the mid-1990s, while outside of London it declined by 23%.

A host of factors play into the decision of where to place one’s children for school. The more prosaic ones include affordability, academic excellence and proximity. Jewish schools in recent years have evolved into some of the best in Britain. And with many of them state-funded, all the aforementioned boxes get ticked.

“Jewish schools have captured a space in-between private and state schools, as the cost is not completely free as people pay for Jewish studies,” Boyd told The Jerusalem Post. High quality and low cost make for an appealing choice. The desire for children to acquire a Jewish education and to make Jewish friends are other strong factors, with many parents citing their wish for their children to learn Jewish traditions from as early as kindergarten.

For more observant mainstream Jews, both the social and practical aspects of observance offered by Orthodox schools are important. “I love the fact that they come home excited about Shabbat and the festivals,” said Shosh Berkley.

That her children’s friends come from kosher homes and attend synagogue is also a pull factor.

Her only concern is that children only receive 50% secular education. However, she still believes that children come out of Jewish schools well-educated.

Dina Cohen (not her real name), whose daughter goes to a United Synagogue (Orthodox) school, would also prefer a more balanced curriculum, and finds too much focus on Jewish studies and Hebrew.

She does note, however, that the schools make significant efforts to teach the students about other religions and cultures.

The Gordons decided to send their daughter to a Reform primary school.

Among other factors, they were attracted by the school’s focus on being active participants in the wider community.

Their school has a good relationship with a local Christian school. In December, the children will participate in a Hanukka concert but will also have the opportunity to watch a Nativity play. On Purim they will host children so they can learn about the festival.

But the Gordons’ main priority was to give their daughter an integrated Jewish and secular education, and love for Israel.

It can boil down to where a child gets accepted. “Due to demand in London, one doesn’t necessarily obtain your first choice of school,” Adam Gordon said. “We selected both Orthodox and Reform Jewish schools ahead of our local non-Jewish primary school.”

Though Gordon would have been happy sending his daughter to a mixed-faith school, he feels fortunate to have obtained a place at a Jewish one. “We would have sent her to Sunday school had she gone to a non-Jewish school, and that would have meant not spending quality family time together on a Sunday morning.”

Secondary school is a long way off for four-year-old Ariella Gordon, and her parents have yet to decide if they will choose a Jewish secondary school or a mixed-faith one. The Gordons believe that when the time comes, her Jewish foundation will be strong enough, and feel the home is the most important environment where that is learned. As the quality of the education in Jewish senior schools is high, they would be happy with either option.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research report states that push factors also play a role in the decision between a multi-denominational and a Jewish school. These include concerns about being one of a very small number of Jews in a student body. That was certainly the case for the Levines (not their real name), who wanted their son to go to a mixed-faith school, but applied to a Jewish one instead when they realized he would be the only Jew in his class.

“We would have preferred a non-faith school, provided it was genuinely mixed-faiths, so that Max could learn about all religions and have friends from different backgrounds, including Jewish friends,” explained Natasha Levine.

“However, the local state schools are no longer mixed and he would have been the only Jewish child in his year.

We absolutely did not want that. We would much prefer an all-Jewish school than for him to be the only Jewish person,” she said, explaining that she and her husband felt it important that Jewish children make up a larger part of the mix.

Several parents expressed the same concern. Levine also notes that had their son Max gone to a mixed school, they would have wanted to put him in Sunday school, an establishment which has seen a decline in correlation with the rise of Jewish schools.

“So if Max wasn’t at a Jewish school, we would struggle to get the Jewish studies aspect for him,” she commented.

Sarah Ilan’s choices for her two boys since 2000 until today furnish a good example of how the situation has changed. Ilan sent both her sons, now aged 20 and 16, to their local mixed-faith primary school. But her two sons’ experiences of the same school were different.

“The main reason I chose this school, apart from its academic excellence, was because the school had a very diverse and good mix of students.

Many different cultures and religions were represented, and also there were a substantial number of Jewish pupils, too. I was clear that I did not want a Jewish education for the children,” she recalled. “I felt it was very important that they learned to understand and mix in the same way they would need to do in the future when they would go into the workplace, and that religion and culture was something we would give them from home.”

Joshua, her eldest – who attended the school between 2000 and 2007 – benefited from the mix of children, and to this day has a diverse group of friends. But by the time his younger brother Jordan started school five years later, Jewish pupils had largely disappeared.

“The mix of the school changed drastically. When more Jewish schools began to open in the area, they rapidly took the majority of Jewish students out of applying for the local schools.”

As Jewish children left, the school became predominantly South Asian, reflecting the area in which it is located.

“Jordan was in a class of 32 and for most of his schooling was often the only non-Indian child among maybe a handful of others in his year,” Ilan said. “In essence this was not a problem, he was happy and made friends. In his younger years, though, he was confused why he did not get to take Diwali off, or receive presents for this festival.

It was not giving him the mix and social education that I had wanted though.”

Therefore, when it came to choosing a secondary school, Ilan faced a choice between the local majority-South Asian school – where much of the curriculum was geared around that culture – or a Jewish school. The Ilans decided that if their sons were to be at a school that represented one culture or religion, it should be theirs. While Ilan appreciates the warmth and comfort offered by a Jewish environment and community – as well as diversity in religious belief, interpretation and personalities – the lack of ethnic diversity continues to trouble her.

She noted that the same phenomenon is now happening with the Asian community, and the predominant intake of her local school is now Polish and Russian. “So my ‘ideal’ of this mix, of all children being educated and learning about and from each other, is becoming even less likely, as the schools are more and more segregated,” she said, adding that many of her friends of other religions and cultures share her concerns.

Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of the Partnerships for Jewish Schools, believes, however, that the lack of religious diversity at school does not harm the children’s capacity to integrate into society. “All the evidence shows that children educated in Jewish schools go on to work in wider society in a very positive way, succeeding at the highest levels at university and in their professions,” he said.

The number of Jewish schools more than doubled over the past 20 years, a development spearheaded by the UK’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who tackled the issue of assimilation with a campaign for more day schools According to Boyd, the conversation at the beginning of the 1990s shifted to Jewish continuity, assimilation and intermarriage. “Before, the conversation had been more Israel-centered, and as Israel seemed to be less at risk, we realized we needed to look at ourselves,” he said.

He also remembered that Britain became much more multicultural then, which he believes resulted in a larger capacity for people to feel comfortable and proud in their identities. Boyd posited that these two factors – in addition to the comfort and familiarity provided by a Jewish environment – triggered the growth in Jewish education. Meyer also suggested that it took time for parents to recognize that the quality of Jewish education had improved, and when that change filtered through, numbers began to rise.

With the significant increase in the number of Jewish schools, they are less oversubscribed than they once were. Nevertheless, there are still Jewish parents who cannot get places for their children in Jewish schools.

The Partnerships for Jewish Schools is working with heads of schools to explore a community- wide strategy to meet the demand.

Solutions include expanding current schools, relocating the Modern-Orthodox King Solomon High School from northeast London to the city’s northwest, where the majority of Jews live, and building a new school. They are also in dialogue with a mixed-faith school about the possibility of offering Jewish studies and kosher food, to accommodate Jewish students there.

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