Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Why Rabbi Romain is wrong on Jewish education

As fellow JC blogger Geoffrey Paul has noted, there is a row in the Times this morning between two rabbis over faith school education.

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, is attacking Reform's Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who a couple of days ago expressed his dismay that a new Hindu school was going to open. Rabbi Romain had said:

“I am greatly saddened by this because the Hindu community has been very well integrated into wider society,” he told The Times.
“It is a very regressive step. It will separate children from the rest
of society and take Hindu children away from ordinary schools so
children from other faiths won’t know them so well.”

Rabbi Goldstein accuses Rabbi Romain of double standards: why should Hindu children be denied the faith education offered to children from so many other faiths?

But there is a deeper issue here, one which goes to the very rationale for having faith schools.

Rabbi Romain wants Hindu children (and children of every religion) in mainstream schools so they can get to know children of other faiths and so that these children, in turn, will get "to know" them. He sees schools, in other words, as instruments of socialisation.

But what exactly are these children getting to know? Unfortunately, mostly only children with a very basic knowledge of their own religion. Yes, they may celebrate some festivals, go to synagogue or Temple on the odd occasion (perhaps) - and that is very important - but what (to move the discussion over to the Jewish sphere) do they know of Jewish history or thought? What grounding do they have in Jewish texts, what real knowledge of the Siddur? Do they understand and have they considered the differences between the Jewish streams, or Israeli history and society?

In order to represent yourself in any meaningful way to others, you need to know yourself and your own culture/religion first. And that is where faith schools come in. Good faith schools should provide a grounding in religion which is usually impossible to pick up at home, even in very observant homes (few parents, after all, have the time to teach their children the Bible, line by line, as a school would - to pick one example).

By seeking to deny children such education, Rabbi Romain is ensuring a generation with nothing more than a surface knowledge of their own religion; some may make it up by themselves as teens or later in life but these are, I am afraid, too few. So I'm not really sure why he thinks it culturally significant to have an ignorant, nominal Jew meet an ignorant, nominal Hindu.

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