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Outreach groups ‘target JFS pupils’
Date: Friday, May 4th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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Parents at JFS, Europe’s largest Jewish school, have told the JC of growing concerns at the access given to strictly Orthodox outreach organisations at the Kenton, Middlesex, campus.

The Masorti movement, unhappy that pupils may be unduly influenced by these groups’ religious agenda, will next month open a telephone hotline aimed at students at Jewish secondary schools who are uncomfortable about their exposure in class to groups such as Aish (Hebrew for “fire”) and the Jewish Learning Exchange (JLE).

Masorti will also support pupils and offer them and their parents advice sessions. The committee in charge is called Masorti Mayim, Hebrew for “water” — because, according to a Masorti insider, “water extinguishes fire”.

“Our young people attending Jewish schools, and in particular JFS, which presents itself as an inclusive school, are exposed to kiruv (outreach) organisations through rabbis, teachers, Aish and the JLE,” said a Masorti spokesperson. “A number of students are turned on to Judaism by the school’s approach, but a much larger number feel alienated and lost in their relationship with Judaism.”

JFS is run under the auspices of the Office of Chief Rabbi, and the United Synagogue accounts for a majority of its governors.

The school refused to confirm details of activities by outreach organisations there. But parents and children claimed that the JLE runs annual trips for JFS students to Poland and Prague and has hosted Purim celebrations.

They also said that Aish hosts a weekly lunch-and-learn session, is the only outside organisation regularly to speak at JFS assemblies and promote its gap-year programmes, has supplied speakers on the controversial “Bible codes”, and has held Chanucah parties for the school.

“Our students describe a situation where there is persuasion to go on holidays with the kiruv organisations for subsidised rates, where they are tempted to go to learning sessions with the organisations because they stop off on the way to buy shawarma, and where the JLE and Aish rabbis are free to roam around [the school] at lunchtime,” a Masorti activist told the JC. “Our kids know they’re being worked on.”

Parents told the JC of their concern that the close relationship between the outreach organisations and JFS was part of an increasingly Charedi approach taken by the school’s Jewish studies department.

“I expected a modern Orthodox approach when I sent my children to JFS,” said one Orthodox parent of two pupils. “But I feel that the unstated aim of the teachers is to show the Charedi lifestyle to be the norm of religious life.”

The parent also had reservations about an annual school trip to the yeshivah town of Gateshead, where “the children are housed with families where the girls don’t sing Shabbat songs. The subliminal message is that this is what frumkeit really is. I wouldn’t mind if they were taken to other communities as well, but there is no range.”

Another parent, Dr Jeremy Schonfield, a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, was disturbed by “a most curious insistence in the Jewish studies department on the literal truth of creation in seven days... Both my kids came back inclined to wash their hands of Orthodox Judaism, because this is the view of it with which they were presented.”

Other complaints included the distribution of the Charedi newspaper Hamodia after prayers; a perceived reluctance of some Jewish studies staff to join the dancing on Yom Ha’atzmaut; and teachers with yeshivah or seminary educations but lacking secular teaching qualifications.

In addition, several Masorti parents complained that their movement was either openly disparaged by teachers or ignored. “When Masorti should have been covered on the GCSE curriculum this year, my child was told that there wasn’t enough time for it, and they just skimmed over it,” one parent told the JC.

In a statement, JFS said: “Several different organisations assist us in offering a wide range of activities and opportunities for our students. Activities of all and any such organisations are properly, systematically and thoroughly monitored and controlled in the school… Staff within the Jewish education department comprise a wide variety of backgrounds within an Orthodox framework.

“The school’s approach is modern Orthodox. Students come from the widest possible range of backgrounds, religiously and socio-economically, and JFS encourages all students to express their views openly and freely. We strive to engender in all our students a strong sense of Jewish identity and a love of Israel.

“We have an outreach approach and work in partnership with many communal organisations from across the whole spectrum of Orthodox Jewry.”

Russell Kett, chairman of governors, added: “JFS is a ‘modern Orthodox’ school and our activities are entirely within the ethos of the school. I don’t describe either of these organisations [Aish and JLE] as Charedi, though they may be more right-wing than these parents are comfortable with in their personal level of Yiddishkeit. No one has contacted me to express concern.”

Regarding the Gateshead trip, he added: “No one forces anyone to go. It is done with students’ and parents’ consent.”

Rabbi Saul Zneimer, chief executive of the United Synagogue, said it had “no objection whatsoever” to Aish and JLE involvement in the school. “We are very proud of JFS’s achievements in both secular and Jewish education.”

The executive director of Aish UK, Naftali Schiff, would only say: “We have a good relationship and provide [JFS] with a service.”

The JLE did not return calls.

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