JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.

As The Guardian reported,

Phillips said the judges did not consider the Chief Rabbi to be racist. The judgment “should not be read as criticising the admissions policy of JFS on moral grounds, or suggesting it was ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense”, he added.

Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.

In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.

Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Times reported today:

David Lightman, an alumnus of JFS who keeps kosher, whose wife is a convert to Judaism and whose daughter was also denied entry to the school on the grounds that it did not recognize the conversion, said that its old admissions policy was narrow-minded and divisive.

His wife is the head of the school’s English department, he said; his daughter teaches Hebrew classes. Why, he asked, should they be considered less Jewish than a non-believing atheist, say, whose mother happens to be Jewish?

“God can work it out,” Mr. Lightman said. “He’s a big boy; he’s been around for a long time. He can decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t.”

Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.

I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.

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2 thoughts on “JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

  1. The JFS may well discover to their surprise that just because a mother didn’t have an Orthodox conversion doesn’t mean that the family cannot be observant. I know a family in which both parents and the older son are Jews by Conservative conversion. But they are kashrut and Shabbat observant, the mother is a Jewish educator, their sons have attended Jewish day schools for both elementary and high school, and the older son now attends List college at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The main difference in their observance from a typical Modern Orthodox family is that they are members of an egalitarian congregation in which women participate fully. Also the day schools their sons have attended have been Conservative.

    The other side of the coin is that I’ve heard that many Jews in the UK, even those who call themselves Orthodox, are not strictly observant. So many children who are halachically Jewish may not pass the observance tests. Although maybe the rabbinate will approve of excluding less observant halachically Jewish families anyway.

    I do wonder how they will check on the religious observance of the families. Will they put sensors in the cars to see if they drive on Shabbat? Will they visit homes and demand to see evidence that they keep separate cookware and dishes for milk and meat and check the refrigerator for non-kosher food? Cameras in the homes to see if they cook or turn lights on and off on Shabbat? Ask the attendants of the local mikvaot about which mothers visit the mikveh regularly?

  2. Dear Friends:

    I can tell you that the British case has been repeatedly discussed on the message board of the Half-Jewish Network (http://www.half-jewish.net), and my group members have been very happy at the decision of the British supreme court.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis

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