In yesterday’s Part 1 of this series Karen Harradine explained why she has come to write about Britain’s ultra Orthodox Haredi community which she believes is facing an existential crisis and threat so serious and urgent it cannot be overstated.
Rabbi Asher Gratt: ‘We live for our children. Our whole life is dedicated for our children.’
THERE are an estimated 271,000 Jews living in Britain. Around 80,000 belong to the Haredi community, a group of ultra Orthodox Jews living in areas such as Stamford Hill in north-east London. Many are descended from Holocaust survivors who arrived in Britain impoverished and ailing after most of their families were slaughtered by the Nazis. Undeterred, the Haredi built up thriving communities, establishing hundreds of their own businesses, synagogues, schools and charities, and even their own ambulance service.
Easily recognised by their distinctive dress style, the Haredi are not a uniform religious bloc but diverse in their beliefs and levels of observance. What unites them all is their devotion to God, and their commitment to their family and community. A core obligation of their faith is to give their children a Torah education, a traditional form of learning unbroken for 3,000 years. More than 60 per cent of Jewish children, including those in the Haredi community, attend strictly Orthodox schools. Now the existence of the schools is threatened by a proposed ‘missing children’ register and the re-categorisation of independent schools to exclude many faith schools that the government has outlined in a temporarily stalled new Schools Bill.
The Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, and is used to describe all forms of Jewish learning including the Talmud, a compilation of rabbinic commentaries, religious laws and observances centred on the Torah. Haredi children study this in independent schools called yeshivas, the cornerstone of religious Jewish education. To understand the Talmud they must be versed in Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish.
The Haredi educate their children in private schools and at home. Religious and secular education are kept separate. According to their family customs, some Haredi children receive education in independent religious schools, later progressing to yeshivas. Others send their boys, aged 13 – 16, to yeshivas during the day. They are then are home-schooled in a variety of subjects designed to equip them with practical skills. There are around 1,500 boys in Stamford Hill yeshivas.
Schools generally devote mornings to Talmud studies and afternoons to mainstream lessons including English and maths. Boys and girls are educated separately. Orthodox Judaism has clearly defined roles for men and women, and Haredi schools reflect this. Girls are taught a more secular curriculum, often performing better in their GCSEs than the boys.
Haredi schools and yeshivas are independently funded, and receive no government finance other than for security systems necessary to protect diaspora Jews from anti-Semitic attacks.
Under the current law yeshivas are unregulated, their students characterised as being home-educated and attending yeshivas for additional religious teaching. Yeshivas have also been exempt from Ofsted inspections as they weren’t legally defined as schools.
The Schools Bill seeks to change this by expanding the definition of independent schools to include yeshivas and by imposing a curriculum deemed ‘suitable’ by the State. Yeshivas would then be regulated as if they were mainstream schools, subject to the same conditions, and forced to teach a secular syllabus directly contravening the laws and values of ultra Orthodox Jews like the Haredi. This impending Big State capture of faith schools, and all children, could also limit yeshivas to operating for only a few hours a day. If they refused to comply, Ofsted could shut them down, obliterating this vital foundation of Judaism.
The Bill proposes the establishment of statutory local authority registers for home-schooled children, including yeshiva students. According to the Education Act of 1996, there is no requirement for home-schooled children to follow a national curriculum or sit exams, but a mandatory register will close this loophole. The register will give local authorities the power to ensure that all home-schooled children are being taught a ‘suitable education’ in line with ‘fundamental British values’. Given what these subjects often consist of, this is a daunting prospect for the Haredi community, usurping the parental right to educate their children as they choose, and posing a fundamental threat to their way of life.
The government admits that the change of definition of independent schools and the establishment of a compulsory register will have a detrimental effect on the Jewish ultra Orthodox community, and that yeshivas would be disproportionately affected by the register (page 78). Yet it still plans to push ahead with legislation. Although the Private Member’s Bill to create compulsory registers for children who don’t attend mainstream schools was recently stalled, a cross-party initiative is likely to ensure that this will pass in future. This will destroy the ancient tradition of Torah education.
Another weapon in the government’s arsenal is its recent Bloom Report on faith. In a clumsy attempt to create an equivalence where there is none between madrassas and yeshivas, the report advocates registering and inspecting these religious institutions, and insists that they all operate ‘like a school’. Yet madrassas and yeshivas differ completely in ethos and structure, and the impact of implementing these policies will unfairly target the Haredi, who now feel so threatened by the government they may leave the country.
Yeshivas have operated peacefully and legally in Britain for decades. But over the past 18 months, successive ministers running the Department of Education, including the current Gillian Keegan, solely refer to and demonise these as ‘illegal schools’. Their rhetoric is exactly the same as used by Humanist UK, a highly influential lobbyist group which boasts of instigating this crackdown on faith schools. https://humanists.uk/2022/05/25/house-of-lords-supports-landmark-plans-to-shut-down-illegal-faith-schools/#:~:text=Humanists%20UK%2C%20which%20has%20long,Parliamentary%20Humanist%20Group%20 The Humanists’ concern for what they designate as ‘abused children’ in yeshivas should be viewed in the context of their advocacy for teaching children about ‘gender identities’, https://humanists.uk/2023/03/31/marking-transgender-day-of-visibility/ and unpleasant fearmongering alarmism that the government’s cruel Covid-19 policy of school lockdowns was not being adhered to by ‘illegal schools’. https://humanists.uk/2021/02/01/alarm-as-illegal-religious-schools-continue-to-operate-during-lockdown/
Other government appointees have revealed their prejudice. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, was unable to produce the evidence she claimed to have justifying the need for a home education register. https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/amanda-spielman-home-education-concerns-ofsted-tribunal When her department received a freedom of information request asking for it they admitted that this was anecdotal and probably not recorded. That such potentially devastating legislation could be based on hearsay and not proper research is troubling in itself. Last month, a judge ruled that Spielman had to provide this evidence.
So what proof or justification is there for such alarmism and hostility? Tomorrow I will describe my time observing, talking to teachers and to children, at the Beis Medrash Elyon High School in north London, a registered independent Haredi school for around 100 boys aged 11 to 15. It is an oasis of safety, calm and good behaviour compared with so many State schools catering for the same age group today.