Telling Tales Out Of School

jfs logo

London's JFS used to be known as The Jewish Free School and was founded 277 years ago.

The Jewish community in Great Britain has taken its internal discord public, telling the sorry tale of inter-denominational disagreement about which students should be eligible to attend North London’s JFS (formerly the Jewish Free School, founded in 1732, the oldest Jewish school in existence and the largest in Europe) in that country’s court system. Britain’s Supreme Court recently finished hearing arguments by JFS asking for the overturn of last summer’s ruling by the Court of Appeal regarding the school’s longstanding admission policy. The school’s policy, which was deemed illegal and has been consequently modified in accordance with the Court of Appeal’s dictates, allowed for the admission of students who were halakhically Jewish by Orthodox standards only (Read Sarah Lyall’s November 7th piece in The New York Times, “Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question,” to gain an overview and chronology of the case).

JFS registry

Archival JFS student registry

This is a case of a tale that needed to be told out of school and dirty laundry that required being aired in public, as painful and divisive as the process has been for Britain’s Jewish community. It brings to light so many complex issues related to Jewish day school education that hopefully it will lead, if not to immediate significant change, then at least to much needed discussion within the Jewish community. It is true that as all education is local, so too is Jewish community. The Jewish religion rejects the notion of central authority, allowing for any ordained rabbi being able to interpret halakhah for his or her congregants (so long as that interpretation can be supported in some way by the law and tradition, and is within the bounds of normative Jewish practice). For this reason, every Jewish community and every Jewish school has the right and responsibility to define itself. What might work in England may not work in Cleveland, and vice versa, but there are still lessons for all Jewish communities and schools to be drawn from JFS’s situation.

JFS students

JFS students

A first glance, the fact that JFS and other Jewish day schools in England are what are termed there as “voluntary aided comprehensive” schools, appears to be a great thing. While here in the United States, parents of day school students are shelling out anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000 a year tuition (that’s per kid, not per family), in the UK attendance at JFS and other day schools is tuition-free. This makes me want to pack up and move to London immediately, but then I stop and think about the downside of all this non-separation of Church and State. Money talks, and when the government is paying for the majority of your expenses, you need to play by its rules. There is clearly a financial price to be paid for a school’s maintaining independent status and its attendant freedom to set its standards and policies. But there is perhaps an even higher price to be paid by accepting government funding and relinquishing that freedom. Is it better for us to have more Jewish children in Jewish day schools, or to be able to maintain control over all aspects of the education of the children in such schools? The jury’s out.

British Supreme Court

The new British Supreme Court

The jury is not out, however, on the “Who is a Jew?” question, as far Britain’s Supreme Court is concerned. The court defined a Jew as anyone professing to follow the Jewish faith and to live a Jewish life. It declared that any determination of Jewishness based on ethnic or racial grounds is illegal. In other words, JFS’s longstanding halakhic test of Jewishness – matrilineal descent and/or Orthodox conversion –  for purposes of admission is no longer acceptable. While JFS awaits the Supreme Court’s decision on its appeal, the school has adopted a test of religious practices to determine the suitability (ie. Jewishness) of applicants (Click here to see JFS’s Certificate of Religious Practice application form).

Although I am not thrilled about measuring one’s Jewishness by a point system (If you clicked on the link and read the form you will know what I am talking about), I was at first glad to see that the school was taking into consideration various aspects of Jewish life and expression: Prayer and ritual practice, Jewish education, and community service and acts of loving kindness. Then I read the fine print and saw that all the school is really looking for is the first type of expression – synagogue attendance. If a student is a regular (or even semi-regular) shul attendee, then dayenu.

Dosh who is a Jew comic

The "Who is a Jew?" question has been center stage in Israel for a long time.

Am I really surprised, though, considering that JFS is an Orthodox school, at least officially? Ritual practice is as central to Orthodox Judaism as is its determination of “Who is a Jew?” based on hereditary criteria. It is a misnomer to consider the criteria ethnic or racial, as Jews live all over the world and are of many ethnic stripes and racial colors. The British Court of Appeal’s use of the term ethnic and racial discrimination in regard to JFS’s traditional admission policy is, therefore, not totally accurate. But the court’s message to the school is clear: What matters is the spirit of the law, not the letter – if someone chooses to live a Jewish life, then she is just as Jewish as someone who was given life as a Jew at birth by her mother.

After having been a Jewish educator for close to twenty years in various settings and geographical locations, and upon opening my eyes to changing demographics and definitions within the Jewish community, these are my sentiments, as well. But do I, the British court, or anyone else, have the right to tell members of the Orthodox community how to interpret halakha for themselves? I believe in Jewish pluralism, which means that I don’t have to like a fellow Jew’s brand of Judaism, but I have to respect his right to adopt it for himself. The Orthodox do not have a lock on halakha, so I can choose for myself the Conservative interpretation of it, or I can choose to ignore it all together (which by the way, is what many JFS students have done once they cleared the admissions hurdle).

JCoSS architect's rendering

Architect's rendering of soon-to-be-open JCoSS

That’s why there will always be more than one synagogue – or school – in a Jewish community. When a Jew doesn’t like the way things are being done, he takes his business elsewhere. So, while all the brouhaha is going on regarding JFS, the more progressive, liberal sector of London’s Jewish community has been setting up an alternative comprehensive school, Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), which is slated to open its doors to students in Fall 2010. It announces on its web site that it is, “A school for and of the community,” assuring that, “Our admissions criteria play no games with testing and points-scoring – we welcome with open arms all members of the Jewish spectrum and we teach, with equivalence, the full range of beliefs, practices and values of our community.”

We’ll see how many Jewish families in London vote with their feet.  I think it will be the liberal Jewish families who really want a meaningful and resonant Jewish education who will send their children to JCoSS. It’s always the farbrent who are willing to be pioneers. Those more interested in having their kids educated in a tried-and-true, highly recognized and historically proven school will make sure they score the necessary points and leave them in Orthodox hands.


RAVSAK is the umbrella organization for community Jewish day schools in North America.

Not surprisingly, Jewish authority in the United States is far more dispersed than it is in Britain (and many other European countries with Chief Rabbinates). This has resulted in more community-based high schools and certainly none of our schools having had to find itself in the exact predicament in which JFS finds itself mid-way through its third century (though not a few Jewish institutions have found themselves in US courts on separation of Church and State issues over the years). But our combined day school high school enrollments are miniscule relative to JFS’s. Surely, not all American Jewish teenagers would choose to attend Jewish high schools, but far more than do now would were tuitions significantly lower than they are today.

I doubt that in our country, where government with a “capital G” is practically a dirty word (though getting to be less so in the age of Obama), we will not be shifting to public subvention of Jewish day schools any time soon. In the meantime, while we await such a day, those of us who really care just as much about Jewish education as we do about excellent education should ask ourselves whether the British model is even one we would want to emulate. After all, there are good reasons for our country’s having broken away from the Crown back when JFS was in its early years. I can’t believe that with all the intelligence and ingenuity within the American Jewish community, we can’t come up with a unique solution that will work for us.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update as of December 16, 2009:

The British Supreme Court has ruled against JFS’s appeal, announcing after a close decision among the justices, that “The majority of the court has concluded that the JFS admission policy does discriminate on the grounds of ethnic origin and is, in consequence, unlawful.” The country’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who authored the school’s original admission policy (the school has a new one in compliance with the race relations legislation) commented that, “The closeness of the court’s judgement indicates how complex this case was.” Indeed, Jewish schools around the world should take note of what happens when anti-discrimination laws face off against the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of association. An article on the Supreme Court’s decision on the BBC website can be read at:


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2 Responses to “Telling Tales Out Of School”

  1. earnet Says:

    I am sorry but you have really misunderstood the Judgment in the JFS case which is now the subject of an apeal to the Supreme. The court was not concerned with ‘who is a jew’ that is a theological debate. The court held that jews constituted an ethnic group, ie it has common history, customs, language etc and not just a religious construct. The Race Relations Act 1976 which prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion etc and the Jews in the UK sought protection under this Act as an ethnic group. Accepting that Jews are an ethnic group, the JFS cannot now argue the contrary that being jewish for entry is a religious issue and not an ethnic question.

  2. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    “Earnet” – Thank you for the clarification you have supplied concerning the court’s judgement. It is certainly helpful for better understanding the case. Nonetheless, the issues relating to the attendant question of “Who is a Jew?” for the Jewish community and Jewish education remain critical.

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