The JFS lesson

The Jewish majority in the Diaspora and Israel need to develop sensible answers to identity, conversion.

jewish school boy pupil 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jewish school boy pupil 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The decision earlier this month by a British appeals court, holding that the admissions policy of the country's largest Jewish school was illegal, underscores a schism within the Jewish world over identity, conversion and the nature of our civilization. The school, JFS, was chartered in 1732 under Orthodox auspices but had long maintained an enlightened approach toward all segments of the community. The litigation came about because JFS now admits only converts who meet the standards of the haredi-oriented London Beth Din, which is out of touch with the majority of Britain's 260,000 Jewish people. It's doubtful that most of JFS's 1,900 students lead Orthodox lifestyles, though the court decision does not affect those students already at the school. The case at hand resulted from the school's refusal to admit a new boy whose mother had been converted by the Liberal stream. His parents divorced; she left the fold, and the boy is being brought up by his halachically Jewish father. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's office refused to certify the child as Jewish - a necessary step for JFS admission - because his mother did not have an Orthodox conversion. The father challenged the rejection in court. He was supported by the Lightman family, whose children were also barred from JFS. Kate Lightman was converted by an Orthodox Bet Din in Israel and does lead an Orthodox life. She was married by an Orthodox rabbi in New York to a kohen - a member of the priestly class which brought animal sacrifices during Temple times. A strict constructionist interpretation of Halacha would, arguably, bar a kohen from marrying a convert. Hence Sacks held that Lightman's conversion was insincere and that the couple's children were not Jewish; and thus ineligible to attend JFS. In a third case, unrelated to the litigation, JFS barred the children of Helen Sagal, though she too was converted by an Orthodox Beit Din in Israel, on the grounds that the family no longer leads an Orthodox lifestyle. THE COURT of Appeal found that using ethnicity or race of the mother as the criterion for entry rather than faith, however defined, breached the Race Relations Act. Without taking sides on the JFS case, the Board of Deputies opposes this decision because of its ramifications for all Jewish schools. JFS tried to appeal the case to the House of Lords, but the court denied permission. The school is likely to pursue a direct petition to the Lords, but this could take time, and there is no guarantee of victory even if the case is heard. As Simon Rocker of The Jewish Chronicle reported, JFS will now have to rewrite its entry rules; instead of being based on the lineage of an applicant's mother, admission will be based on religious observance - such as synagogue attendance. But as Prof. Geoffrey Alderman points out, the school has painted itself into a corner. If it produces narrow Orthodox criteria to measure observance, it will transform itself into a haredi institution; and if they are very broad, what's the point? Yet is JFS even capable of setting middle-of-the-road faith criteria? How will it respond to families that are observant but affiliated, say, with the Conservative or Reform movements? It's a pity that a school which played so pivotal a role in British Jewish life now finds itself in the clutches of haredi obduracy. Fortunately, a new cross-denominational school is scheduled to open in 2010. THE JFS controversy is a larger dilemma in microcosm. Those who favor greater insularity and artificially enforced homogeneity, who insist uncompromisingly that they alone are privy to God's purpose, will continue to advocate for a Judaism that is unwelcoming. The Jewish majority in the Diaspora as well as in Israel - running the gamut from neo-Orthodox to progressive, yet also embracing the affiliated secular - need to develop sensible answers, rooted in Jewish law and tradition, to the issues of identity and conversion. In so doing they will be hammering home the point that Judaism is a thriving and evolving civilization rooted in sacred history, religious ritual, a shared past and the sense of a common destiny. It is not synonymous with haredism.