Mixing Religious and Secular Youth - a Danger or an Asset?

Should religious and secular Jewish youth intermix socially? Does a British Jewish school offer a template for coexistence in Israel?

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Walter Bingham, INR,

High school students (illustrative)
High school students (illustrative)
Flash 90

In Israel it is the norm for Sabbath-observant children to attend schools where the ethos is on Jewish laws and where Sabbath is observed in the student population homes - at least to a large extent. Conversely, children from families where religious observance plays no - or only a minimal part - in their weekly routine, are sent for their education to secular  schools.  As a result, there is little or no intermixing between the two groups, which may be one of the reasons for the fragmentation of society that we see today, where there is sometimes strife between Sabbath observant and other sectors of Israeli society.  

Education Minister Shai Piron is pushing for the establishment of schools that intermix observant and non-observant students. One of the main criticisms of the idea, one that has no operative solution, is that this would lower the level of Torah and Talmudic study for the religious students who at present have many hours of advanced Judaic studies.  

In addition, however, many religious communities prefer not to let their children have contact with their non religious peers, so as to avoid any temptation to adopt the perceived somewhat "easier" secular way of life while too young to understand the meaning of mitzvahs. That seems to point to an enforced method of religious education in the home, where observance of laws is taught as a duty to the parents rather than as a healthy lifestyle. After all, "the ways of Judaism are pleasant", as evidenced by our dietary laws or the Sabbath being a day of rest, as well as many other tasks that are a pleasure to uphold and that do not prevent an otherwise enjoyable life - and they can be taught that way. 

Another fear may be that Jewish observance has not as yet been sufficiently secured in the young persons’ mindset and they are therefore vulnerable to other influences. And interestingly, many secular parents are concerned about the possibility of their offspring coming home with religious ideas and perhaps making demands of the household. 

According to findings by Walter’s World of Israel National Radio, some of these fears are unfounded. 

A visit last week to Europe’s largest Jewish School, the JFS in London with a student population of more than 2,000, was an "eye opener".  This is an establishment with a difference.  Not only does one find poor and rich, but also religious and secular students in the same classroom of this State-funded school (the American equivalent of a Public School), and all have the advantage of a curriculum and facilities that rival, if not even surpass the best Private Schools, of any level of religious observance.

The criterion for admission to JFS is simply to be Jewish and to provide proof to have attended a Synagogue on at least eight occasions during the year, regardless of its position on the religious spectrum. Yet the schools ethos is on Jewish observance and the love of Israel and all boys are required to wear kippot (skull caps) in the vicinity of the school, even if they are not observant - and the wearing of school uniform for both sexes is compulsory. That means that girls will be modestly dressed and the financial status of the home is not apparent from the label on the clothes.

In the National league tables JFS ranks consistently among the top 1% of achievers and is the top mixed sex comprehensive high school in the country.  It is also a school where Sabbath-observant and non religious students form friendships.   

Talking to Walter’s World, the Head teacher Mr. Jonathan Miller, who has taken over since 2008 but has been teaching at the school for 25 years (and doesn’t like to be called Headmaster or director) explains that JFS originated in London’s East End as a Talmud Torah Institute in 1732 called Jews Free School, hence today’s initials, and is not only the largest but also the oldest Jewish school in Europe.

Mr. Miller insists that JFS is a school for the whole Jewish community and therefore on being admitted, the level of Jewish knowledge varies from inability to read Hebrew to being fully Sabbath observant.  Yet on the value added tables that measure the difference of achievement between a student’s ability on entry and the progress they make while at the school, JFS ranks among the highest, even though there is no discrimination for admission on the basis of academic ability.

The Head teacher describes his school as a community; a partnership between students, parents and the school staff with a threefold aim for his students:

1. To achieve the best that they can academically;

2. To make progress in their individual Jewish journey that includes the love of the land of Israel and identification with the State of Israel

3. To learn how to be leaders, in preparation for making a contribution to their community in the fields of charity and welfare when they leave school, where they will have been stimulated, stretched, academically challenged and turned into independent thinkers.  

Asked about Zionism, Mr. Miller said that whilst he cannot give directives, he hopes that many of his students will consider to opt for a life in Israel.  

To that end, the school offers the opportunity for students of age 13 to 14 to spend time In Israel in either an extended stay at Kibbuz Lavi, or on a three week program of travelling the country. This year 240 of 300 ninth grade students will be taking part.

JFS participates in the local sports league and the Maccabi games with excellent successes. All this takes place in an atmosphere of friendship between religious and secular students, who even visit each other’s homes.

I was given a tour of the schools outstanding facilities in their State of the Art building. My guide was Mr. Jamie Peston, head of JFS community relations. On display were mementos, plaques and foundation stones from former JFS buildings as well as a host of sporting trophies won by the school.    

We passed 2050 lockers, one for every student. Throughout the school there are computer rooms for each of the different subjects as well as a computing department with four classrooms where beyond the skills of information and computer technology, students learn the next generation of technological advancement of computing and programming.   

We passed the music and theater section with several practice rooms for one-to-one tutoring, a recording studio and a theater seating 450 people. It was a surprise to see a fully equipped television studio of high professional standard. I also saw two large gymnasiums, one with a climbing wall, as well as several full size outdoor sporting pitches within the school’s 23 acre complex. For extracurricular activities there is a normally equipped fitness studio and a dance studio. JFS has 14 science laboratories for all kinds of experiments, design and photographic and woodwork studios and a lot more.

Most impressive is the large circular synagogue with its several stained glass windows and six Torah scrolls. A large number of students choose to attend early morning services, which they lead themselves.                                                                             

The atmosphere, co-operation and sincere friendship between observant and secular students at JFS stands as an example to Jewish society in which we are all one, regardless of religious observance, and must live together in peace.

This is of particular importance in Israel, where we have plenty of enemies around us and need to work together. 

In next week’s program we shall hear from those who matter: the students of JFS, who express freely and without inhibitions or constraints their assessment, criticism or praise of their school, as it impacts on their individual lifestyle. Their views contain a number of surprises.

Walter’s World can be heard every Sunday at 5pm Israel or 10am Eastern time on Israel National Radio and is available  thereafter on demand as a podcast on www.israelnationalradio.com or by simply entering Walter Bingham Israel on Google.