Sunday, 19 February 2012

School fights

A silent battle has been raging in Stamford Hill for the last few weeks or even months and possibly years though you would know little about it if you merely followed the local press. The noticeboards have been of some assistance though they also only tell part of the tale. I do not pretend to know all the details so I will present what I do know and leave it to others to fill in the missing bits.


Poised on one side is The Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools and Organisations Ltd (AOJSO). Quite a mouth full, I know, but we do like grand sounding names and acronyms round here so let's not dwell on peripheral matters. The AOJSO has made it its task to represent local Jewish schools and yeshivas to government bodies. A notice which popped up on the noticeboards for a short while underlined the object of 'encouraging the fullest co-operation’ between schools and the authorities.

Massed on the other extreme is Satmar of the 86 Cazenove chapter and some anonymous activists who may or may not be associated with them. To them any dialogue with 'outside' authorities is anathema as things are best when left untouched because, let's face it, Judaism has been untouched for 2000 odd years and we're doing rather well thank you very much.

And in the middle are those who are neither modernisers, for want of a better word, nor loonies who will oppose if only for the sake of opposition. These will gladly follow almost anything so long that it is led by someone bearded in a shtreimel though even then it should not carry too much of a 'modern' whiff about it.

The issue of primary concern to the AOJSO is the Bermuda Triangle of Stamford Hill where numerous boys between the ages of 13-16 disappear from the system into a black hole. That might be something of an misnomer as in fact they are being groomed to be grooms for one thing but also to a life of spiritual ecstasy while being entrusted with the passcode to the world to come. So rather than a dark pit perhaps we should call it a bright skylight.

Anyway, the law demands that children in this country up to the age of 16 are taught a broad and balanced curriculum. For those getting itchy and minded to jump up and down and flailing their arms about because our curriculum is as broad and balanced as anyone else’s and we whose ancestors were worshipping a golden calf long before theirs had even dreamt of Stonehenge will not be taking any lessons on what to teach our kids, please calm down and do let me finish. You see the 'broad and balanced curriculum' also includes spoken and written English. Yup, I realise that can be something of a problem so get your cheeks in your palms and time to do some thinking.

So an Association was formed to meet the authorities and see what can be done. Not that bad, is it? We meet government ministers to discuss clocks going back and request that they be turned back 1000 years rather than tinker with the odd hour. We campaign for a more lax planning regime unless it's for an eiruv in which case we want the death penalty for violation of a mere by-law on Hampstead Heath. We pop up on the radio to campaign for housing benefit rather than sort out our education and get more people into work. So why not campaign on that very issue of education? It is becoming ever more difficult for our Pied Pipers to have the increasing number of boys 'vanish’ and some saner minds have decided that it may be a good idea to regularise these yeshivas.

And it came to pass that last month Stamford Hill and Golders Green put their ties on and went to Westminster for some shtadlonus in the good old fashioned way. For reasons unknown, a notable absence was our photogenic 'leader', 'rabbi' and 'spokesman' who 'runs several schools.' Perhaps he was not invited or he may have made himself scarce. I suppose when one runs a communal school as if it's the family corner shop one does tend to be suspicious of a grand sounding Association which may get the wrong idea of poking its nose into areas outside its concern, especially when the husband, wife and kids are doing such a marvellous job.

But what about the English, I hear you cry. Well, to some, if it means that the boys have to study some 'English', which is the local all-encompassing word for secular studies, then so be it. I suspect that those behind the project find it convenient to be able to point a finger at the authorities and that it’s not, God forbid, of their own initiative. But therein lies the point because once you have some schools regularised it becomes easier for the authorities to clamp down on the dissenters.

Well, all hell did break loose in some circles and in one speech in Satmar '86' a US speaker, Menashe Fillip, accused the 'AOGSO' (sic) and those behind it of heresy and much worse and of inciting the 'goyim' to make demands of the yeshivas on their study programs because the 'goyim' if left alone would allow us to do what we like 'until the coming of the Messiah'. Strong words although he may have something of a point.

DfE briefing notes

Apparently the meeting last month was not the first. The document above is from the Department for Education's website of the briefing notes for previous meetings where the issues are set out in some detail. (Further details are available here, and the JC article referred to is here.) Particularly intriguing is the note on page 2 that the DfE requested assistance on this matter from local authorities but 'most authorities were reluctant to assist.'

This must have included Hackney where many if not most of these yeshivas are located and betrays a remarkable blind-eye attitude especially when compared to say enforcement of planning breaches. It amounts to a policy which effectively says, do with yourselves as and what you like and we shall stand back so long that you don't bother us. You wish to ruin your kids' employment prospects and deny them a half-decent education? No problem. You want to operate your schools in ramshackle buildings with little regard to the safety and welfare of the children? Please feel free to do so. Your family kindly seeks to commandeer an entire school from admissions to a private 6th form on the school premises and balance the books with the school hall? Our pleasure. But please just one small request: whatever you choose to do do it in your own backyard. Add as much as a slate to your roof, however, and we'll be down on you like a ton of bricks. Political correctness in action, some might say. Or second class citizens, perhaps.


This being Stamford Hill, the gravity of the situation was immediately sensed and our special forces sprung into action. The email above appears to indicate that there may have been rival attempts to bend ministerial ears organised by Rabbi Herschel Gluck (famously savaged by Geoffrey Alderman) but which were roundly rebuffed. Gluck did however get to meet some mandarin with ‘Grand Rabbi’ Schlesinger which must count for some achievement. Apparently, there has also been a letter from school heads to Rabbi Padwa that they do not wish to be represented by the AOJSO though it may have been later withdrawn.

Finally, our dear vice president’s presence cannot be overlooked. The DfE notes provide biographical information for each of the attendees. For His Grace, the coucillorship and mayoralship are duly noted as is the vice presidency of the UOHC. Omitted, however, is his Chairmanship of the Board of Governors of YH Senior Girls School. Even if he may only be a nominee it surely should be worthy of mention when meeting a minister on the very subject of secondary education. One must attribute this coyness to the great man's trade mark humility and reserve and we are proud to have the opportunity to fill in the record.


Simcha said...

My dear IYTU,

Welcome to the real world.

When I came to live in Stamford Hill, it didn't take me too long to realise that there is, effectively, an unwritten brit between the secular authorities and us (I always use the words we and us to refer to my fellow Yieden, never they or them).

This agreement requires that the authorities, Hackney Council in particular, be bumblingly inefficient, terminally politically correct, and scandalously corrupt, and thus powerless to prevent us from doing whatever we like regardless of the law. In return, we have agreed that we will not inflict our social and educational problems on the aforesaid authorities. We seem to have coped quite well under this agreement.

Secular education is in my opinion somewhat over rated. I know plenty of native British people in business who can barely open an envelope on their own, never mind write a coherent, grammatical and correctly spelt letter about their income tax. That hasn't prevented them from earning six figures per annum doing whatever.

In addition, there are many life skills which I see as helpful to success that don't get taught in mainstream British schools. For example, I am aware of no school that teaches the kids to meditate.

And when I think on the antics of politicians, sportsmen and other celebrities that make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, I begin to appreciate why our Rabbis get so worked up about the evils of secular western culture. I don't share the views of the Rabbis concerned. I do think there are serious questions to be asked as to where European culture is leading us. What is it all for? Why do we do it? Is it bringing us to God, or is it doing the opposite?

To be fair, we also should be asking the same question of ourselves. Here's a story of my own experience: I was once at the Pesach seder of a Stamford Hill resident whose eldest son was home from Yeshiva. My host, who I will call Reb Reuven, was very proud of the fact that the son, Reb Binyamin, had abandoned a civil engineering degree in order to learn Torah.

I asked Reb Binyamin what he made of "Torah im Derech Eretz" (see Pirke Avot 2,2). He replied that the Rabbis had abolished that principle.

I beg your pardon?

Yes, replied Reb Binyamin. There is so little Torah learning today that our Rabbis have now decreed that there is no value in learning for an occupation. We must learn only Torah.

It gets worse: several years later, I heard that Reb Binyamin was married, and living in a very expensive apartment in the Walled City of Jerusalem. He was still not working and only learning Torah. To keep this worthless youth in the manner to which he had been accustomed, his poor old Dad was working all hours God sends as an electrician.

You will no doubt notice that the principle of "Kibbud Av V'Em" has now been stood on its head as well. All the meforshim that I have any knowledge of agree that the young people ought to work and earn money to obtain the comforts of life for their aged parents, rather than the other way round.

There is a good joke I could tell you about God being a civil engineer, but as it's rather rude I will wait for your permission before sharing it.

Love and peace to all,

Moish said...

Simcha - whilst it is indeed the case that there are many successful businessmen who are not well educated, the fact is that people with a decent education are far less likely to be extremely poor too. Just take a look at the report produced by the JPR last year on child poverty in the Jewish community, which was featured in the Tribune. Have a guess which sector has the highest proportion of families that cannot make ends meet. I'll give you a clue - it also happens to be the one with the lowest proportion of university graduates.

We must also bear in mind that there are now fewer professions one can enter into without an educational qualification of some sort, and there is no reason that we must restrict ourselves only to a few occupations that require no formal education.