Is a Jewish education for children the basis of a Jewish commitment for adults? Many would passionately argue that the complexities of Jewish life and experience can be communicated and registered only by teaching them to the young. This, indeed, was the raison d’être of the Jewish day school movement in Britain. At its core was Rabbi Hillel’s dictum, “the more study, the more wisdom”. While this seems logical, research just published by Dr Stephen Miller of the City (of London) University* shows that the relationship between Jewish day school education and Jewish identification is neither obvious nor linear. Whilst parental example and a Jewish primary education are fundamental determinants, he argues that a Jewish education at a Jewish secondary school is, for many a pupil, by no means an enriching experience. Indeed, for some it is an alienating process rather than an educationally beneficial one.
The very term “Jewish education” is all-embracing and open to differing definitions. And few Jewish parents remain indifferent to it—even those who regard it as no more than a means of social control.
In the numbing aftermath of the Shoah, the concept of education was understandably interpreted in particularist and survivalist terms. Those who advocated a purely secular Jewish existence in the Diaspora found themselves victims of a traumatic dislocation. The cultural aspirations and educational apparatus of pre-war eastern Europe were no more. These had been destroyed root and branch, with
* Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. III, 1988 (The Melton Centre, Hebrew University) their adherents, in the death camps. Moreover, in Britain—unlike France or Australia or Argentina where a secular Jewish education blossomed—these values proved to have a limited appeal. In addition, whilst many secular Jews chose assimilation in the ebbing tide of antiscmitism, others came to the conclusion that Jewish secularism was the god that had clearly failed in Russia. Thus, for many British Jews, apart from those who emigrated to Israel, post-war Jewish education meant a return to safety and certainty, to the tradition of the denigrated cheder.
Historically, a basic Jewish education in Britain was designed to convey the bare essentials of religious rituals which were part and parcel of the Anglo-Jewish lifestyle. It was centred in the cheder or in withdrawal classes at school. The disruption caused by the War created the impetus toward educational reconstruction which manifested itself in the Jewish day school movement. Moreover, the 1944 Education Act made provision for state aid to religious denominational schools.
Jewish schools were perceived as major loci on the road to “Jewishness”. Yet they also aroused a degree of antagonism from Jews who believed that they caused separation from the rest of society.
The Board of Deputies’ demographic survey of the Redbridge community in East London in 1978 found that over 60 per cent of Jewish parents opposed Jewish day schools, citing segregation as their main objection. But the report’s authors, Barry Kos-min and Caren Levy, also showed that although they wished their children to mix with non-Jewish children in school, they simultaneously wished to limit those contacts outside school in the hope of preventing “out-marriage”. Integration did not mean assimilation. Opponents believed that such institutions were dens of obscurantism and narrowness but, ironically, as many observers have noted, a majority of pupils who attended Jewish day schools probably came, in fact, from non-observant homes. The Redbridge report showed that only 8 per cent of Jewish parents who supported Jewish day schools did so for purely religious and ideological reasons whereas 40 per cent did so for the wide curriculum based on the teaching of Hebrew.
In the ten years that have elapsed since the Redbridge survey, the proportion of students attending Jewish day schools has probably increased by 15 per cent. This is due, in all likelihood, to an affirmation of ethnic identity amongst younger Jews rather than a religious revival. Jewish schools are perceived as not simply the transmitters of knowledge from one generation to the next, but also as an instrument of cultural self-determination. Whilst faith is important, it is located within the wider context of ethnicity.
Other factors which have no obvious bearing on Jewish education, also play a role. The present government’s policy to restructure the state system of education through the reallocation of funds has had an effect on Jewish parental thinking. Jewish schools are perceived by some as the last bastion of selectivity. Rather than send their children to the local state school, parents tend to believe that Jewish schools—by definition—are of a higher standard. Thus, whereas some parents send their children to a Jewish school, an increasing number send them to a school for Jews.
In the economic climate of the eighties, a market-place mentality has evolved which demands Jewish social commodities. Barry Kosmin, in the 1987 West Central Lecture crystallized the philosophy of this tendency and proposed a remedy.
One of the problems of dealing with a highly educated wealthy population is that they are very sophisticated consumers. In fact, given the general social values of Reaganism and Thatcherism, return on investment is in itself a social good. Hence we find young Jews who will enter the communal orbit for specific services. They will purchase a Jewish nursery, a seder, a barmitzvah ceremony, even an interesting cultural event. However for Jewish culture to work both collectively and individually it must be touched more deeply and permanently. Moreover to establish a permanent and viable communal infrastructure one needs to recruit Jewish citizens who are lifetime participants and willing voluntary taxpayers. Jewish citizens who will pay for other people’s children to be Jewishly educated and other people’s elderly parents to end their days in dignity, as well as for their own immediate needs or those of their near kin. To do this one has to educate people to appreciate the importance and values of community and tzedakah.
Even within the sector of Jewish day school education, the work of Stephen Miller and others before him suggests that some radical new thinking is required in the sphere of Jewish secondary education. Dr Miller surveyed 1,400 Jewish students, aged eleven to eighteen, in both Jewish and non-Jewish schools. He first considered attitudes and feelings toward Jewish Observance. Forty per cent were positive. When this fraction’s positive response to keeping kashrut was analysed, it was discovered that students attending a Jewish school were only marginally more in favour when compared to their counterparts at a non-Jewish school. When the contribution of parental influence and attendance at a Jewish primary school or cheder was removed, the effect of Jewish secondary school education on attitudes to Jewish observance was virtually non-existent. Similarly, when he examined an ideological factor, “belief in God”, he came up with similar results. Attendance at a Jewish secondary school actually induced a negative association. The only positive impact of Jewish secondary schooling is at the level of practical observance but, as Dr Miller remarks, “it has no connection with attitudes to observance or desire to remain Jewish. . . . A harsh conclusion would be that Jewish [secondary] schooling reinforces the mechanical aspects of Judaism at the expense of the intellectual and spiritual dimensions”.
)ewish students’ concern for Israel and fellow Jews were discovered to be extremely strong in both Jewish and non-Jewish schools—a basis for the successful activities of chalutzic and study groups. But a most disturbing feature of the research was the low number of students who actually made the connection between Judaism and ethical behaviour. The question, “Do Jews have a special duty to help anyone in trouble?”, did not strike any special chord.
It can, of course, be argued that any survey of adolescents is bound to reveal a flicker of rebellion. But the Redbridge report also showed that Jewish adults who were educated in Jewish secondary schools were no more religiously motivated than those who had gone to non-Jewish ones—and graduates of Jewish secondary schools were more likely to be atheists than all other groups, with the exception of those who were given no Jewish education whatsoever.
Clearly, parental and Jewish primary education are all important building blocks for the construction of “Jewishness”. But it does appear that Jewish secondary schooling only works for students with this back-ground—and the rest instead of being “re-Judaized” opt out of Jewish life altogether.
Does any of this really matter? Some would sincerely argue that Jewish continuity is neither their personal concern nor their historic burden. Others would counteract Dr Miller’s findings by stating that there is a return to some form of Jewish identification for many in later life. In the absence of adequate research, this must remain a well-intentioned hypothesis.
In their 1983-4 report, the Jewish Educational Development Trust estimated that there were 55,000 Jewish school children. 15,000 received no Jewish education whatsoever; 7,000 attended a Jewish primary school; another 5,000 a Jewish secondary school whilst the rest received some form of part-time education.
These statistics, coupled with Dr Miller’s findings, are cold comfort in a shrinking, aging community. Although many Jewish educators, both religious and secular, are involved in important and indeed courageous initiatives and there is a clear demand for self-definition—as evidenced by the recent Ruach conference in Leeds, the Limmud network for Jewish educationalists or by the expanding work of Project SEED which implements religious learning on a one-to-one basis—the solution must reside in the home, in an integrated family-centred education rather than a child-centred one.
If Jewish parents continue to believe that others can forge their offsprings’ identity, religious or secular, without any contribution or effort which may involve a sacrifice of principle as well as prejudice, then these youngsters will eventually vote with their feet. Apart from the ultra-orthodox, being Jewish in Britain in the next century may well become a meaningless existence in which only the beacons of nostalgia and materialism burn brightly.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1988