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Supporting our Jewish children in non-Jewish schools

Written by Rabbi Neil Janes

I think all the children at South Bucks Jewish Community, where I am the rabbi, attend non-Jewish schools.

Based on the most recent census, there are probably 300 Jewish children in the county and 300 schools. Every Jewish child knows they are a minority.

I am heartbroken to hear that some Jewish families do not want their schools to even know they are Jewish – that is the world we live in post-7 October 2023.

Even before 7 October, I was already supporting Jewish children in schools.

Issues which I was hearing about included: peer on peer antisemitism – references to the Holocaust and threatening language.

I was also aware of some school syllabi about Judaism, problematically included learning about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I also know of Jewish children being asked to explain Israeli government policies to class, Jerusalem denied as the capital of Israel and handouts which held Jews accountable for the killing of Jesus. Whenever conflict erupted in the Middle East, comments were made in the playground.

The response by schools was mixed. Some were proactive, tackling issues head on, refusing to reduce the peer-to-peer issues to teasing or bullying but rather using the frameworks in place for responding to racist abuse. But there were examples of schools where issues were downplayed or excused.

So, we now find ourselves post 7 October.

Schools that were already well equipped to deal with antisemitism may be finding these times challenging and will be using all their skills and experiences to support Jewish students. However, the schools which already were poorly handling existing issues (and often denying it), will only find the situation gets worse.

Here are my recommendations for families to share with school leaders:

1) Policies must be clear, up to date and understood by everyone.

2) Communicate with your school community pro-actively about your values and that you will not tolerate hate in any form. Do not feel you need to qualify your position against antisemitism with any comment about Gaza – if you want to speak about humanitarian concerns, communicate that in a separate message.

3) Robustly respond to any allegations of antisemitism.

4) Get training and advice and do not depend on the one Jewish family or staff member to do your work for you.

5) Programme in your school year opportunities to celebrate Judaism, do not only commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day.

6) Be open with your students, provide constructive frameworks for talking about the current situation, backed up by your values and policies and with well-informed facilitators – use outside agencies who specialise in this.

7) Monitor the situation and communicate regularly.

8) Seek advice from the local Jewish community about RE and never conflate the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into your lessons about Judaism. At minimum, have a subject specialist oversee materials.

9) Do not hold your Jewish children to account for the Israeli government, do not place them on a side, do not expect them to be knowledgeable, do not assume they want to be ‘out’ as a Jew.

10) If a family (or a local rabbi/Jewish community) communicates with you, respond with gratitude that they want to be in touch about how the current situation is affecting them.

· Rabbi Neil Janes is the rabbi of SBJC – South Bucks Jewish Community

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