Needed: A Big Tent approach to worldwide Jewish education

by Maskil on February 26, 2008

According to this JTA Breaking News piece dated 12 February 2008:

A prestigious Jewish school in London was accused of discrimination for refusing to accept the daughter of a convert.

The JFS, formerly known as the Jewish Free School, rejected the application of a girl whose mother is a convert to Judaism and a teacher in the school, the Times of London reported Tuesday. Her father is an Orthodox Jew.

The office of the chief rabbi, which acts as the school’s religious authority, does not recognize the mother’s conversion, which took place more than 20 years ago under the auspices of the same office.

The Times reported that children from two other families were refused admission based on questions about conversions. The school, which receives government funding, says the refusals were based on religion, not race.

The Lightmans have been battling for admission on behalf of their daughter, now 13, for four years.

In the same way that The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) has been advocating a Big Tent Judaism (“Big Tent Judaism | to engage, support and advocate for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people”), I would argue that the time is ripe for a Big Tent approach to Jewish education worldwide, to accommodate those who want a pluralistic Jewish (day-school) education for their children. This would include all “hyphenated Jews”, whether referred to as half-Jews, non-Halachic Jews, non-Jews; anyone who happens to have been born with the “wrong” Jewish parent (or grandparent).

Obviously Orthodox establishments such as the JFS are not going to be offering any such pluralistic Jewish education, nor are “those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people” going to be welcome in their hallowed halls anytime soon (unless the legal system compels it). On the other hand, those on the progressive end of the Jewish spectrum have, generally speaking, put insufficient emphasis on Jewish day-school education, so options are limited here.

A Big Tent approach to Jewish education may therefore require the establishment of an International Jewish Day Schools Movement (IJDSM). This is something I have suggested previously, and I hope to produce a detailed proposal in this regard during the course of this year. In outline, however, such a network should be able to offer the following:

  • A non-judgemental and inclusive admissions approach that would treat (for admissions purposes) those with one Jewish parent as being “under the presumption of Jewish descent” (equilineal descent) and would also respect conversions performed by all the recognised streams of Judaism.
  • A “no child excluded” approach, including financial assistance to ensure that a Jewish education is never denied for financial reasons. (This cross-subsidisation would require support from the Jewish donor and wider community.)
  • Above-average secular academic program.
  • Compulsory Hebrew and pluralistic Jewish Studies program. (Jewish Studies would take a “highest common factor” approach acceptable to the entire spectrum from secular through to liberal Orthodox. Religious instruction would be regarded as a matter for the home and the synagogue.)
  • Diversified sports program, with the emphasis on team sports.
  • An emphasis on social justice (Tikkun) and care of the environment
  • Participation in the various Zionist youth groups and Jewish Scouting movements encouraged.
  • Preparing children to participate fully both in the life of the Jewish community and that of the community around them.
  • Uniform standards/curricula worldwide, but adapted to local conditions/laws where necessary
  • Models to allow existing schools/Jewish day-school networks to affiliate with or become part of the IJDSM
  • Adapt to worldwide Jewish demographic trends by allocating resources (including opening and closing schools) in accordance with these trends.

The best example of such worldwide consistency may be the American International Schools (AIS) or Deutsche Internationale Schule networks, but with a far more centralised or hierarchical structure.

It’s time for the Lightmans – and all those in similar situations – to stop humiliating themselves and wasting their energy banging on the closed doors of the Orthodox world, and instead throw their weight behind more democratic, pluralistic and open Jewish alternatives in culture, education and worship.

(I haven’t even touched on the most shocking aspect of this story, the allegation that “The office of the chief rabbi, which acts as the school’s religious authority, does not recognize the mother’s conversion, which took place more than 20 years ago under the auspices of the same office. [my emphasis]. The truly despicable retrospective annulment of conversions by Orthodox rabbinates in Israel and elsewhere is fast becoming a trademark of this stream of Judaism.)

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