In the past few weeks, I have visited a number of Jewish primary schools as part of my work at Tzedek. These UK Jewish schools have been twinned with primary schools in Ghana for Tzedek’s ‘Lomdim B’Yachad’ (Learning Together) programme.
I was visiting some of the UK schools to carry out filming of an introductory message from the UK children to the Ghanaian children.
The messages the UK children wanted to send to Ghana were all pretty similar. ‘Hi we’re from London and we are 9 years old. We like playing football, do you like playing football? We get lots of homework. Do you get homework? What is your favourite food? We like pizza and fish and chips’ Some classes also sang Jewish songs, such as Adon Olam and Hevenu Shalom Aleichem (May we bring peace to you all).
My recent school visits brought home to me just how many Jewish primary schools there are these days.
Yet, rising numbers of Jewish school places in areas where there are not enough Jewish candidates to fill them has led to non-Jewish children being admitted to these Jewish schools. The non-Jewish children wear Kippot as part of their uniform, learn Hebrew and Jewish studies and wave Israeli flags on Israel Independence Day.
One of these schools in Essex has a 25% population of non-Jewish students. Walking into the school, I recognised many features of my own Jewish primary school. Classroom exhibits about Jewish festivals, photos of school plays about Moses and Abraham, Siddurim (prayer-books) on desks, the Jewish date on the whiteboard next to the English date. This particular school, according to its website, is a United Synagogue day school with a commitment to the practice of modern orthodox Judaism and a regard for Israel in Jewish life.
Yet many of the children in the class we were visiting were of African or Asian descent. We arrived as the students were coming back to their classroom after an optional Ivrit (Modern Hebrew) or singing lesson. Of their own choice, many non-Jewish children had been in the Hebrew class.
After my visit, I began to think about how my own education would have been affected by the presence of a diverse multicultural student population, rather than the students in my primary school being predominantly Jewish kids from North London.
Obviously there are many issues to think about. Should these schools be defined as Jewish schools, or rather schools ‘inspired by the Jewish faith’. There may be religious concerns about teaching Torah to non-Jews. Perhaps teachers cannot tell all their students to have a ‘Happy Hannukah’ or a ‘Shabbat Shalom’. Teachers must also be able to navigate through racial problems which undoubtably will arise in a class with ethnic diversity at such a young age. Should Muslim prayer rooms be provided for Muslim students? Should there be a Halal option for lunch as well as a vegetarian option? If so, where do you draw the line? Is bringing in a Priest or Imam for private lessons with Christian or Muslim students a good idea? Should these classes be open to Jewish students as well?
I have not yet made up my mind about how I feel about this multiculturalism in our Jewish schools. Living in a Christian country, I have many Jewish friends who attended public secondary schools where they could go to a separate Jewish assembly during the Christian prayer time. The question is, should this ethnic convergence happen in Jewish schools as well?
But aside from all these questions, all I could observe from my short visit to this Essex school was a class of happy and engaged 9 year olds, all learning together about other 9 year olds in a very different country far away. Perhaps this is in fact a very positive step towards David Cameron’s vision of an empowered multicultural society working together for the benefit of Britain.
Regardless of the issues, I personally feel that a Multicultural, Interfaith Year 4 class in a Jewish school singing their hearts out in Hebrew about Peace or ‘Shalom‘ has a powerful message of its own.
I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below!