Talking Point
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Keep Religion Out of Schools

In a thought provoking article, Helena Cramer, member at Woodside Park shul gives a personal view and argues that perhaps we shouldn't blithely assume that Jewish Schools have all the answers…

In my opinion, we are doing a huge disservice by sending our kids to Jewish Schools. It’s a disservice to the community, a disservice to our children and a disservice to society as a whole.

Many of us send our children to Jewish schools because we are told that faith schools perform better in the league tables. However, the data is misleading since it doesn’t take into account important socio-economic factors. The reality is that Jewish schools perform well because many of the children come from middle class families. As a whole, middle class parents tend to take an active interest in their child’s education and, Jewish or not, they tend to have higher demands and expectations of their children and their school.

With this continued growth in number of Jewish schools comes the inevitable demise of the shul cheder and I believe there is for some children a knock-on effect of a fall in shul attendance. The limmudei kodesh provided by these schools replaces the need to attend cheder and, for many, perhaps among those who are not so religious, their commitment to daven at school during the week makes them complacent about attending Shul on Shabbat.

(For a while, in some schools, it had become almost commonplace for b’not mitzva to bypass shul entirely by holding the ceremony at school). The net result is that the child may have become totally disassociated from shul. Cheder creates a natural and lasting affinity with the shul where it is based; if you take cheder out of the equation, shul loses its connection. Shuls need a young and vibrant community to survive in the long term.

Our children have come to rely almost totally on their Jewish school for social interaction. Gone are the days of the local youth club – now classmates migrate en masse to summer camp. The result is that our kids have become increasingly insular, staying within their same social set when they move on to University, often opting for the campus that boasts the largest number of Jews. They form a clique, little realising or caring about the negative effect they may have on non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ who may actually resent being excluded. What message does this send to others? If our children are blinkered, it is as a consequence of an attitude fostered by Jewish schools.

The majority of Jewish parents, observant or not, send their children to Jewish schools because they fear they may marry out. But how long must we keep our children cosseted? Rationale tells us that they will eventually have to go out into the real world and, come what may, they will be obliged to interact with various ethnic groups. But, far from preparing our children, Jewish schools are actually blocking them. Faith schools, in general, are divisive and, by segregating children on the grounds of religion, we are polarising society and stoking racial tension.

I am not saying for one moment that we should deny our heritage, it’s just that an understanding of Judaism and a love for all things Jewish can be instilled at home and limmudei kodesh can, and should, be taught at cheder and in shul. We need to break down the barriers and encourage our children to foster friendships with others. Being a committed Jew and being able to respect and welcome others of different faiths are not mutually exclusive. The answer does not lie in Jewish schools.