When was the first Jewish Day School established? According to our Midrashim, the explanatory stories that accompany our Bible, it was during the time of the Patriarch Jacob. To explain why Jacob and Esau were so different in their upbringing, Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10) says that after the age of 13 Jacob used to attend the study houses and yeshivot, the Jewish schools whilst Esau used to visit the shrines to idols. I guess if these existed in those times then Jacob’s children from our Torah portion must have been Jewish day school children too, though the Torah itself says only that they trained to be shepherds.
The first major Jewish Day School in the UK was the Jews Free School, now JFS, which Ethan, our Bar Mitzvah attends. It was founded in 1732 as the Talmud Torah of the Great Synagogue in Central London, close to today’s site of the Gherkin office tower. JFS moved in the 1830’s to Bell Lane near Spitalfields where it became the largest school in the world with 4000 pupils at its peak, including my grandmother Phoebe z’’l, who was a pupil in the 1920’s, in the 1950’s it moved to Camden and then in 2002 to Kingsbury.
Even so attending a Jewish Day School rather than a mainstream school with children of all backgrounds was very much the exception among the UK Jewish population until quite recently. In the 1950’s when the number of Jews in the UK reached its peak of over 420,000 there were only 5200 children enrolled in Jewish Day Schools, according to a report published this week by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (https://www.jpr.org.uk/publication?id=17933) . This was at a time when some schools, particularly English public schools such as Mill Hill, Highgate and St Paul’s school imposed a Jewish quote, Pharaoh like, lest there be ‘too many’ Jews in the school. (https://www.jta.org/archive/london-schools-charged-with-practicing-anti-jewish-discrimination).
My own education was in a Church of England Primary School and then an independent school with a Christian ethos – but in both places my Judaism was very much respected and was built by my family’s active Synagogue life. Nicola and I made the same choice for our own children. Rabbi Debbie’s children attend a local Jewish Day School – so the spectrum of choice, which EHRS respects in our members, is reflected in our Rabbinate.
By 1995 the numbers of children in Jewish Day Schools had grown considerably reaching 17,000, more than half of whom were in what the IJPR report calls ‘Mainstream’ Jewish Day Schools and just under half in ‘Strictly Orthodox’ Jewish Day schools. With an average birth-rate of seven children per Haredi or Ultra-Orthodox woman, in a community with no regard for the environmental consequences, a very substantial amount of the growth of numbers of children in Jewish Day Schools has been driven by ‘Strictly Orthodox’ Jews. In 2021 there are now 21,000 children in Strictly Orthodox Jewish Day Schools and maybe up to 4000 more children in OFSTED unregistered Yeshivot and informal schools.
But of course the number of mainstream Jewish Day Schools like Clore Shalom, Akiva, Sinai, Yavneh, JCoss and JFS has also grown. There are now 44 of them with 14,000 pupils – taking Jewish Day School numbers to 36,000 in a total Jewish population in the UK of 270,000. These 14,000 pupils in mainstream Jewish schools are evenly split between primary and secondary school pupils. The strictly orthodox schools have 15,000 primary school children and only 6000 in secondary schools due to the huge birth-rate, more than three times the rate of the mainstream of the Jewish community. Now 40% of Jewish pupils in a Jewish Day school are in a mainstream Jewish Day School (ranging across the Jewish spectrum from Clore Shalom to Hasmonean) and 60% in a Strictly Orthodox one (such as Yesodey HaTorah or Pardes House). In 1995 there were 9000 Jewish children in mainstream Jewish Day Schools. In 2021 there are 14,000.
This growth of mainstream Jewish Day Schools has very much affected the Jewish life cycle at our Synagogue, Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, and others like us. It has meant that for the majority of our children our Cheder is not an option that parents choose because they feel that their children have been learning the same curriculum during the week at school. It has meant that our youth clubs’ attraction is no longer as a place to meet other Jewish children when you spend five days a week in the company of almost exclusively Jewish children.
However our Synagogue’s ethos is absolutely to support parental choice of their children’s education and so we are proud of our Sunday morning Orot Cheder which caters joyously to children who attend mixed schools in the local area. We have also found that our youth clubs and uniform groups, the 3rd Edgware scouts, cubs and brownies have a very important role in creating community identity, great Jewish experiences and relationships between children at all kinds of schools though their holiday schemes and purposeful programmes. Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah programme brings young people together whatever kind of school they attend and our Hadrachah leadership training and B’nei Mitzvah mentoring programme continue this throughout teenage.
There are definitely problems though. EHRS and all Reform, Masorti and Liberal Rabbis are banned from coming to give assemblies and classes at most of the Jewish Day Schools our children attend which are under Orthodox auspices – though we are frequently able and welcome to visit Clore Shalom and JCoSS, our local pluralist Jewish Days Schools, as are our Orthodox colleagues. And there is another problem – which is that attendance at a Jewish Day School is not actually a very good predictor of Jewish involvement and commitment later in life.
It is difficult to know why this should be but in survey after survey it has been found that whatever kind of school a child attends the best predictor of continued Jewish life, outside the socially restricted Haredi sector, is that a child comes to Jewish youth movement programmes voluntarily and that their family is involved in community and home Jewish life.
Jewish Day School will not do it alone to bring up a generation of Jews who perpetuate our Jewish values, create and nurture community and give us a future and a hope.
There are other trends that come from the growth of Jewish Day Schools of which we need to be careful. Following a school career in a Jewish primary school and a Jewish secondary school it’s not surprising that just 6 UK universities have 75% of Jewish students. This means we must invest in supporting the increasingly isolated Jewish students in the other 100 universities of this country. And we need to be aware that very many Jews will never have got to know non-Jews as friends and colleagues. Our Synagogues will need to work hard on building interfaith relations so that we do not isolate ourselves.
EHRS supports parents’ choices. It means that we help those who want their children to attend a Jewish Day School, for example to collect the Certificate of Religious Practice points (CRP) required for admission by attending our services, and it means that we invest substantially in our Cheder and in all kinds of family activities while children are growing up which supplement and give meaning to Jewish education wherever you receive it.
We know that it is immersion in the Jewish community of a Synagogue that makes Jewish life meaningful throughout our generations. Schools are single generation institutions – and our Jewish community cannot be built on the whim or willingness of the UK Government Department of Education to fund our schools. We must make sure our Synagogues thrive by being active and contributing members of them and that our children come to love being part of them by being here and experiencing the best of what we can be, together with the Youth Movements that we sponsor.
In our Torah and Haftarah the children of Jacob were diverse and yet united. They founded the tribes of Israel, of which we are still part, with all our contribution to the world. Schools can be only one building block towards Jewish meaning and Jewish relevance – let’s make sure our Shuls are just as strong.