The Haredisation of Jewish Education in SA

by Maskil on November 6, 2007

An article on page 3 of the SA Jewish Report for 19 October 2007 covered the appointment of Dr Max Price as vice-chancellor of UCT (University of Cape Town). The article had this to say regarding Dr Price’s involvement with Jewish education in SA:

Commenting on his communal involvement, Price said he had served on the South African Board of Jewish Education for three years “because I thought that the (Jewish) community was isolating itself significantly from the community around it and needed to become more integrated.

“I was part of that community and therefore needed to play a role in trying to break that isolation and create more integration – I have to say I wasn’t successful.”

What was being hinted at here was made a good deal clearer in this letter to the editor, published in the 2 November 2007 edition Entitled “GOOD ENOUGH FOR UCT BUT NOT SABJE” the letter from Joseph Hasson of Cape Town had this to say (I have had to quote extensively from the letter).

THERE IS a disturbing tendency for a certain segment of the South African Jewish community to dominate communal bodies and structures and use them to advance their own agendas and conceptions of Jewish identity.

It is ironic when our own Dr Max Price is appointed vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, yet not so long ago he was persona non grata in the Jewish community’s own election of educational leaders.

Price was elected and served on the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE) from 2000 to 2003. He was bounced in 2003 when the Orthodox religious leadership mobilised to ensure its preferred candidates won seats on the board.

In 2006, Price once again ran for election.

He has been an active member of the KDVP PTA since 1998. Despite being the only candidate with educational credentials and expertise garnered outside of the Jewish community, Price was not elected. Why?

He, and other so-called “liberals”, has long been perceived as a progressive, open-minded critic of some of the SABJE’s policies and this earned him his place on an unofficial “blacklist”.

Price spoke out against the marginalisation of parents during the initial (2001 to 2003) restructuring of the King David Schools; the rumoured closure of the KDVP campus in 2002; and the introduction of increasingly religious and conservative policies, which undermine the traditional, secular, reform, and liberal ethos of many learners and parents.

Orthodox synagogues, by virtue of their membership, are granted the majority of voting delegates at the SABJE’s conference. At the 2006 conference, at least one voting delegate known to me, was shown a list of candidates for whom he should vote by the chairperson of the synagogue he represented. The list allegedly originated from the UOS leadership and Beth Din, communicated to the chairperson via the synagogue’s rabbi. This is not democracy.

Decision making in community institutions gains legitimacy from broad consultation, in this case with learners, parents and the community members whom the conference delegates and board members represent. It is parents who should hold the majority say in matters affecting school policy.

Despite constitutional changes in 2006, this is not the case and therefore parents do not truly control their children’s education.

The problem is not the institution of the SABJE or its current leadership. The SABJE has a competent board with the highly distinguished Adrian Gore as its chairperson. The problem is allowing the Orthodox religious establishment to control the SABJE and thus the school’s ideological and religious policies.

A few decades ago, the Kind David Schools (KDS) (and those following a similar model elsewhere in SA) were the consensus schools, the cornerstones of the SABJE’s day schools network. While some objected to the idea of Jewish day schools in principle, and others wanted a Yeshiva education for their children, Kind David schools enjoyed almost universal support from the SA Jewish community. Sadly, this no longer appears to be the case. KDS has moved religiously further right than even the SA Jewish community is comfortable with, while at the same time being increasingly outflanked on the religious right by smaller schools and Yeshivot, in most cases funded by Jewish communal funds through the SABJE! Those uncomfortable with the “Haredisation” of Jewish education are migrating to private schools such as Crawford, along with so-called non-Halachic Jewish children, now barred from KDS.

In a previous posting, I called for the establishment of an international Jewish day schools movement (I hope to deal with this subject in more detail in the near future). It now appears to me that such an organisation has a role to play not just in places where a good Jewish education is hard to find, but also in places like SA, where there is the appearance of a surfeit of Jewish education. If the SA Board of Jewish Education is to increasingly become the SA Board of Orthodox Education (or even the SA Board of Haredi Education) then a non-denominational alternative needs to be provided, and Jewish communal funds need to be redirected accordingly.

While each of the major streams within Judaism has its own networks of Jewish Day Schools, something I’d like to see is an international non-denominational Jewish Day Schools network, offering a consistent “entry-level” Jewish education to whoever requires it. In addition to an above-average secular education, these schools should provide Hebrew and Jewish studies classes, but leaving religion to be dealt with at home and in the synagogue.

Apart from consistency and the cultural and non-denominational approach, it is essential that attendance be subsidised by philanthropists and the wider Jewish community, to ensure that the education is available to all who want it for their children, without cost being a prohibitive factor. While I understand that there are many who would not – as a matter of principle – send their children to a faith-based school, I believe there are many who would if finances permitted.

Jewish education is too important to be left in the hands of a clique of Orthodox rabbis, while the model steadily being adopted by the SABJE is becoming more and more relevant to less and less people.

A detailed, academic study of the evisceration of the King David Schools can be found in the excellent “Prophets and Profits: Managerialism and the restructuring of Jewish schools in South Africa” by Chaya Herman. You can obtain it here:

Prophets and Profits: Managerialism and the Restructuring of Jewish Schools in South Africa

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