Miriam Shaviv
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Jewish studies: our failure
Date: Friday, July 7th, 2006
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

Miriam Shaviv argues that the drive for more Jewish schools is too focused on bricks and mortar.

Despite the boom in Jewish education currently reflected in the pages of the JC - which has led to a doubling of the number of Jewish schools and a 65 per cent growth in student numbers in a decade - our pupils still lag far behind their North American counterparts in the quantity and quality of Jewish education they receive.

This is particularly marked at high-school level. At JFS and King Solomon, for example, year seven students spend just five hours a week on Jewish studies, including Hebrew; at Imm-anuel College, six. In North America, most high schools, even non-Orthodox ones, spend 10-15 hours a week on JS, sometimes more.

There’s a good reason for the discrepancy: with GCSEs and A levels, English students shoulder an exam burden their North American peers do not. With less than half the teaching time, the Brits cannot hope to match American skills and knowledge.

Moreover, the focus of the limmudei kodesh of many of our students is the GCSE in religious studies, with a specialty in JS. But this exam is designed for non-Jewish pupils studying comparative religion and is regarded by Jewish educators as pitched at a very low standard.

Crucially, the GCSE has no Hebrew component. The modern Hebrew GCSE is also relatively basic.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Brits studying in Israel on their gap year are routinely placed in the lowest sets; that few graduates of our schools are inspired to go on to Jewish studies at university; and that we routinely have to import educators and rabbis from abroad.

What can be done? Firstly, the schools must push for a new GCSE curriculum which meets their more advanced needs, and make serious JS compulsory. Barring that, we could create a compulsory communally recognised exam at an appropriately high level.

Secondly, the community must make a serious financial investment in curriculum development and teacher training - not just in buildings. In America, such private philanthropic organisations as the Avi Chai Foundation have spent tens of millions of dollars strengthening the quality and professionalism of Jewish education. In Boston, anonymous donors recently gave $45m to local Jewish schools for their JS programmes. In Toronto, the Jewish Federation spends some $12m per year supporting the local Jewish educational system. The British community must show similar commitment.

Not least, parents must accept that giving our children a proper Jewish education will mean more classroom time and homework, despite the exam burden. The Hasmonean children attending evening and Sunday-morning classes - which entail an extra five hours of JS, in addition to 16 hours a week - manage to cope. There is no reason other students cannot too, provided they receive proper encouragement.

With willingness to participate in the Jewish school system at an all-time high, now is the time to invest in quality. We must avoid complacency. A higher standard of achievement in our high schools will transform our community.

Miriam Shaviv is a JC journalist educated overseas

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