Can Jewish and Muslim children fight increasing antisemitism and crime?

At London’s Simon Marks school, students learn human values through a Jewish lens.

All boys who attend the day school are required to wear kippot and there is a conservative school uniform, including skirts for girls (photo credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)
All boys who attend the day school are required to wear kippot and there is a conservative school uniform, including skirts for girls
(photo credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)
LONDON – “What is good for you is not good for me and vice versa,” the Country Mouse said to the Town Mouse, as they embraced at the conclusion of the play “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” which has been adapted into Hebrew and was performed at the Simon Marks primary school in central London last week.
The play was one aspect of the school’s participation in the “Spoken Ivrit (Hebrew)” festival, in which a number of Hebrew plays translated into English are being performed by a group of leading actors from Tel Aviv at 18 London schools. The festival, which started last week and ends Tuesday, is sponsored by JNF UK.
For the children of Simon Marks, the play’s focus on accepting differences and celebrating similarities must have resonated, as this is the basis for what they are taught every day. The only United Synagogue mainstream Orthodox Jewish day school in the London Borough of Hackney, its principal is of Turkish descent and at least half of the students have only one Jewish parent or none at all.
Pictures of flags from around the world are stapled to bulletin boards, representing Colombia, India, Eritrea, Ghana, Jamaica, New Zealand and the many other places from which the students and their families emigrated.
“The school has one worldview and that is Orthodox,” said consultant rabbi-in-resident Nicholas Goldmeier. “The students are quite happy learning those values, because they are the values of society.”
In other words, he said, the students learn human values through a Jewish lens.
Goldmeier said that when he grew up in Britain 30 years ago there was little diversity, whereas today, according to the most recent census, one in three people who live in London was born abroad. Immigrants are set to account for half the capital’s population within 15 years.
 Some in London, Goldmeier believes, fear these new immigrants. But he, on the other hand, thinks multiculturalism should be celebrated and will ultimately lead to greater success.
The 19th century German-Jewish rabbi and scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch “wrote to educate children in the way they are going to grow up,” the rabbi said. “If a child is going to grow up in a culturally diverse society, that is the way you have to educate him. Simon Marks is a model for how children should be educated to be successful, both socially and academically – and even financially – in a society. From social acceptance comes everything else.”
Principal Gulcan Metin Asdoyuran has been with the school for three years and adheres to the same philosophy. She equates Jewish values with British values of respect and tolerance, and said she looks at Simon Marks as a model for how society could be if we could live together in better harmony.
“When people talk about Muslim people, they assume the females are wearing hijabs and the men the fez – there is Islamophobia. When people talk about Jewish people, they see men in black, long coats and hats and curly locks coming down,” the principal continued. “It is about breaking down these stereotypes. Only through education can we make a difference.”
Of course, not everything is accepted equally at Simon Marks. All boys who attend the day school are required to wear kippot, and there is a conservative school uniform, including skirts for girls. The students start out their mornings with prayers and hold a collective Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service and assembly on Fridays. Whether a student is Muslim, Christian or a Jehovah’s Witness – and there are children of all these faiths at Simon Marks – she or he participates in the program, learns Hebrew and celebrates Israel.
Muslim parent Necibe Ozturk, whose daughter Nazli Ela is in first grade, admitted that she knows little about some of the subjects her child is learning. Ela, as she likes to be called, is teaching her mother Hebrew and explains to her about the Jewish holidays. While at first it was confusing for Ozturk, she said she has learned to celebrate the traditions.
“Praying is really important,” Ozturk told The Jerusalem Post. “So, she prays in Hebrew – that’s fine. We are all praying for the same thing: being grateful – just saying thanks – so that is good.” She said Ela now refers to God as Hashem (the Name).
“Hashem is just another name for Allah,” said Ozturk, who believes that all people are talking to the same God.
Ozturk said she tries not to follow “too much politics” and doesn’t have an opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict. She doesn’t even know about the recently released “Deal of the Century” peace plan. She puts up a Christmas tree, throws an Eid al-Fitr celebration (the break fast after the month-long Ramadan daytime fast) and now lights Hanukkah candles with her daughter, believing one can find joy in all faiths.
“Respect, understanding, kindness, generosity, being good and family-oriented” – that is what Simon Marks is about, she said, “and the education is very good.”
Math coordinator Syed Gilani, also Muslim, expressed similar sentiments. He said that when he took a job at Simon Marks, his friends and family asked him, “How are you going to do this?” “But I really get along,” he told the Post.
Gilani counts in Hebrew – “achat, shtayim, shalosh” (one, two, three) – he said with a smile, and has become enlightened about the similarities between Islam and Judaism. The school recently visited a mosque.
“We spoke about why you take your shoes off when you enter a mosque,” Gilani said. “It’s because Moses was asked to come forth in front of God and take his shoes off. It’s the same Moses.
“The world is full of differences, but here at Simon Marks, we pick up on the similarities and celebrate them,” he concluded.
The oasis of tolerance that Ozturk and Gilani described taking place at Simon Marks is, however, inconsistent with reports about Britain in general and Hackney in particular.
The Community Security Trust (CST), a Jewish community security organization that works in cooperation with the UK police, reported last week that there were 1,805 antisemitic incidents in Britain in 2019, up almost 7% from the previous year and the highest total ever recorded in a single calendar year.
Jewish day schools in Britain have been surrounded by high metal fences for years now. And guards are hired to protect entryways.
Furthermore, according to a report by the UK police, compared with other areas in London, Hackney has an above-average crime rate, with “violence against the person,” being the No. 2 offense, only under theft and handling. Some 36% of people in Hackney are living in poverty, according to the UK NGO Trust for London.
“In every primary school, children have a happy time,” Asdoyuran insisted. “It is the age of innocence, and we need to nurture them. In secondary school, the curriculum includes a focus on gun crime, knife crime, so children are reluctantly and realistically hardened. Our children will not be blind to what life in London is like.”
And they will be open-eyed about Israel.
Through a four-year grant from JNF UK, the school has been expanding its Israel curriculum. Simon Marks purchased laptops so students could Skype with youth in the Jewish state. The Hebrew language, noted assistant principal Zachary Jacobs, is incorporated into everything the school does.
Jonathan Gallon, CEO of JNF UK, said these programs “aim to connect the Jews who live here with the Israelis and allow them to speak the same language.
"The main goal of JNF UK is to continue and strengthening Israel when the relationship with the diaspora poses a major challenge for us," he continued. "We want Israel to become a key part of Jewish identity of the youth in the UK and one of the ways to do so is through the Hebrew language. Today, Hebrew is only being used as lashon hakodesh for many Jews. We thought, how about how we could turn this language to an everyday language among the students."
JNF UK is the oldest Israel charity supporting Israel's periphery with various projects in the education, culture and infrastructure.
Last year, the school participated in a country-wide Hebrew spelling bee competition and two of its children placed in the top three. A non-Jewish student who immigrated to London from South America was among the winners.
Under Asdoyuran’s leadership, the student body has grown by 20%.
“It’s a small school and everyone knows everyone,” said sixth-grader Lori. “We are not all the same and that’s the best thing about us. They learn from me and I learn from them, as well.”