The annual UJIA conference on Jewish education research is always fascinating. The sheer variety of topics and level of academic research is breathtaking and the opportunity to meet old friends and to share with them is most welcome. Although you might think that the subjects would be theoretical, I felt that they could have a real impact on how school leaders think about curriculum and teaching. Thank you UJIA.
This years’ conference was no less of a treat. You may have read about some of the talks in the Jewish press, so I won’t go over old ground, but there were a couple of lectures by good and valued friends which really resonated with me and I thought that I would take this opportunity to tell you about them.
Professor Steven Miller of City University has been at the forefront of the community’s thinking and strategic planning for many years. He is also a delight to listen to, so his talk on his latest research into education, Jewish identity and Israel was always going to be worth hearing: and so it was. You may have already read a little about it, but what resonated most for me was that we, as a community, are becoming more educated in secular studies – witness the number of post grads and doctoral candidates in our community - and yet seem to be drifting further away in our social and community connections than those who are more strongly Jewishly engaged. The question which struck home to me was “are we losing an entire cohort of potential community leaders and. If we are, what should we be doing about it?” Is the promotion of ‘Jewish Identity’, he posed, just a blunt instrument in the ongoing effort to develop Jewish engagement and, if it is, how can we improve the tactics? We have to learn that Jewish Identity is not the same as Jewish Engagement.
To many in the room, one of the most interesting results of his current research was that younger, more educated Jews felt no dichotomy between their love of Israel and their need to question its government’s strategy. There is no contradiction – so the research seemed to say - between being a Zionist (the new Z word, so it appears) and objecting to the current policy of the elected government of Israel. His research results certainly gave me – and I’m sure many in the room – pause for thought. With community organisations struggling to attract younger members to leadership roles, or even to become members at all (remember Bowling Alone?), his research could not have been more timely.
Another session was addressed by Clive Lawton, who needed no introduction, but who some in the room might have forgotten was the Headteacher of a Jewish secondary school for some years before his later incarnation as ‘Mr Limmud’, for which he deservedly receives so much praise, as well as national and international recognition.
He spoke about the idea of diversity in Judaism, starting with the whole concept of difference built in to the havdalah ceremony. We Jews recognise that there are a diverse range of faiths and beliefs in the world and, whilst we do not seek to convert their adherents (as other religions might) we firmly believe that they can achieve their highest goals by accepting the Seven Noachide Laws. Throughout our entire history, Clive said, Jews have lived within a wider society, only relatively recently being forced into the ghettos of Europe. He reminded us of the biblical stories which featured non Jewish groups living in the Land of Israel and that and that today we can fully understand that Jews are, indeed, a ‘global people’. Take, for examples, he said, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Indian and Italian Jewish communities: all different and yet all bound together by one faith and one Torah.
He then turned to the thorny issue of schools, some of which, it is suggested, maintain a higher educational standard by selecting on the basis of faith. With FBVs being on everyone’s lips (or at least Ofsted’s) and the Prevent Strategy being high on the government’s agenda, his thoughts were appropriate, to say the least.
All schools, Clive stated, are selective. To some surprise he offered as examples Chinese schools, primary schools, rural schools, or indeed schools in any specific postcode. No one was suggesting wholesale bussing of children from Tower Hamlets to Kingston upon Thames, though. Whilst all schools are selective in one way or another, yet it is only schools which select on the basis of faith that are coming under such scrutiny. He wondered why?
His solution is innovative, as we could imagine. He is recommending a new ‘compensative curriculum’, so that all pupils learn to understand the need to compensate for the narrowness of their own schooling. Limmudei Kodesh, he suggests, is an excellent vehicle for teaching diversity, as we can start right now by showing how the different Jewish traditions from around the world deal with foods, or the seder for example.
He certainly gave us all food for thought, although whether it was kitniot or not will have to wait for another festival!
Boxes with an asterisk * next to them are required items