Jews established a universal education system for boys very early on. Learning the texts and being able to discuss them intelligently was almost a basic right as well as a responsibility and literacy levels were very high even as far back as Roman times. In later years and through the Middle Ages more attention too was paid to girls’ education so that by the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the extensive poverty within the main centres of Jewish population, literacy was almost universal and often in more than one language and script.
In modern times, Charedi education is characterised by a very deep commitment to learning the classic texts of Judaism, particularly the Talmud for boys and the Torah and its midrashic commentaries for girls, so that Charedi schools – almost all private and usually fairly small – will devote most of a long school day to this study, reserving only perhaps a couple of hours a day for secular studies which, to be frank, seem pretty easy after the complex challenge of Talmudic study. In Charedi communities learning is the norm and many men will restrict their earning capacity to spend more time learning. For example, a shop keeper might open his shop for fairly restricted hours so that he can attend classes and seminars. Luckily, other Charedim in the area who probably frequent his shop will be happy to shop with him in his restricted hours since they too will want to get along to the classes! Thus learning in these communities is something to be done by adults and prepared for by children. A young Charedi man walking along the road with earphones plugged in is much more likely to be listening to a Talmudic discourse can any kind of music. Women learn too but usually their learning will be more generalised and discursive, rather than text based, but that is changing especially amongst the Modern Orthodox and women’s seminaries are growing up which provide at least an intensive learning programme for a gap year or more after school. The rise of learning for women is starting to challenge traditional understandings of how far women can take leadership roles in the religious dimensions of Jewish communities.
For the rest of the community, Jewish education is concerned to ensure a level of competence with Hebrew (usually liturgical Hebrew so that Jews can participate easily in synagogue and other prayers and rituals, but there is some desire too to help young Jews learn the modern language of Hebrew so that they can feel at home in Israel), a good knowledge of festival and Shabbat practice, a capacity to determine Jewish ethical teachings in inter-personal relationships – social, sexual and business ethics – and to cultivate a sense of identification with the local Jewish community and worldwide Jewry.
Jewish education in the UK today
The first Jewish school in the UK, established in 1732, still exists to this day. The Jews Free School (JFS) has moved across several sites over the centuries but today is in Kenton in North West London and is the largest Jewish schools in the country with over 2000 pupils. But not all Jewish schools are this large. At present there are around 100 Jewish schools in England, of which about 40 are voluntary aided and the remainder are independent. (NB – there are no voluntary controlled or foundation Jewish schools or Academies with a Jewish character). These schools range in size from small (1 form entry or less) to very large (over 2000 pupils) and they are diverse in terms of the particular denominations within Judaism that they serve. The majority of Jewish schools are in London but there are also schools in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow.
As these schools represent different denominations within Judaism, the religious authority overseeing schools also varies. The Chief Rabbi is the religious authority for the largest grouping of Jewish VA schools (www.chiefrabbi.org) and in the maintained sector, the two significant Jewish educational bodies which could be likened to diocesan authorities are the United Synagogue (www.theus.org.uk), which takes the Chief Rabbi as its religious authority and therefore represents the mainstream orthodox Jewish community, and the Jewish Community Day School Advisory Board, part of the Leo Baeck College (www.lbc.ac.uk), which represents the progressive Jewish community.
Today, approximately 60 per cent of Jewish children of school age attend Jewish schools compared to around 25 per cent 30 years ago. There are now more than 26,000 Jewish pupils attending Jewish schools compared to less than 13,000 some 30 years ago and as of January 2009, there were 15,500 children in maintained Jewish schools and 12,000 in independent Jewish schools.
Nearly sixty per cent of school age Jews now attend Jewish schools, which are in the majority voluntary aided (except for the Charedi schools described above) There are currently about 40 VA Jewish schools, most of them primary. Obviously the curriculum in such Jewish schools is the same as that in other state schools with a varying proportion of time – (15 – 40%) - devoted to Jewish studies and Hebrew. As a rule, levels of secular education achievement are high in these schools. They also, of course, provide a full Jewish cultural experience, organising their year around the Jewish calendar (though they still have to close for Christmas and Easter!), providing kosher food, ensuring that one of the trips abroad available to children is an educational tour of Israel and so on. Thus, obviously, Jewish schools are not just about the variety available in the formal curriculum, but an opportunity to provide an immersive Jewish life experience throughout the school day.
As the demographics and geographical spread of the Jewish community in the UK have shifted over time, this is reflected in Jewish school provision. Whereas many church schools are attended by children of many faiths and none, as there are so few Jewish schools in comparison, they are generally over-subscribed with Jewish pupils. However, due to a shrinking community in their areas, the King David primary schools in both Birmingham and Liverpool now have a minority of Jewish pupils but retain their Jewish ethos. And at the same time, there are groupings of parents in areas of London who are looking to establish new Jewish primary schools as the number of Jewish children in their communities has risen in recent years to the point where it now exceeds the number of available places in the local Jewish schools. In September 2010, the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK will open in Barnet, North West London (www.jcoss.org)
The remainder of Jewish children who receive a Jewish education – only about 20% of Jews in the UK don’t bother to organise this for their children – attend part-time classes, usually on a Sunday morning and usually only up to the age of Bat or Bar Mitzvah (12 or 13 years old). Clearly this is a far less satisfactory arrangement for Jewish education but parents might make this choice because they do not live near a Jewish school or because they feel it is more important for their children to integrate into non-Jewish society as early as possible.
In addition to the formal education arrangements described above, there is a rich variety and network of youth movements and activities, many of them peer led, which give young people enjoyable and fruitful Jewish experiences – some of them with very deliberate educational content - as well as helping many young Jews develop their leadership skills and sense of responsibility for the future.
For more information about many of the Jewish schools in the UK, as well as links to individual school websites and a FAQ section covering topics such as admissions and curriculum, please visit http://www.findajewishschool.co.uk/ . For more information about a range of Jewish youth movements and peer-led organisations, please visit http://www.ujia.org/what-we-do/youth-movement-directory/
The Board of Deputies of British Jews http://www.bod.org.uk
Jewish Education Resources (especially on the festivals) http://www.jewishagency.org/JewishAgency/English/Jewish+Education/Compelling+Content/Jewish+Time/Festivals+and+Memorial+Days/t1.htm
Jewish education specifically for children
- Torah Tots http://torahtots.com
Totally Jewish http://www.totallyjewish.com
Virtual Jerusalem http://www.virtualjerusalem.com
BBC Learning Site http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/