Thursday, 17 December 2009

Crisis of faith

One of the unusual characteristics of British life is that about a third of our state-funded schools are associated with particular faiths: the Church of England, the Catholics, the Jews and most recently, perhaps to prove how wonderfully open in spirit we are, Islam.

Many people think that these schools, which make up about a third of the total, are rather better than the ordinary, run of the mill secular kind. A Christian education makes a better person, they feel, which rather flies in the face of the fact that Henry VIII, Generalissimo Franco and Tony Blair all thought of themselves as God-fearing Christians.

This inclination towards faith schools has led to the phenomenon of some middle class parents suddenly rediscovering God, usually when their eldest child is about four. They frequent the Church assiduously for the year before admission decisions are taken. I’ve often wondered whether they behave like the villagers in that excellent novel, George Eliot’s Silas Marner: they didn’t go to Church every single Sunday but would miss one here or there, so as not to give the impression they were trying to take an unfair advantage over their neighbours in the race to heaven.

I wonder whether the parents looking for a quick route to the local faith school do the same? Do they miss the occasional service so as not to be thought too zealous? Do they say ‘We’ll both do Easter, of course, but perhaps you can handle Whitsun on your own and I’ll do the Harvest Festival.’ The important thing is to make sure their faces are recognised in time for the Admissions interviews, so the child gets the important acknowledgement of belonging to a Church-going family.

I assume, though I don’t know, that this behaviour continues until a few months after the last child starts school. Then presumably they can allow their attendance at Church, their helping with Fetes, their contributions to the good causes to tail off. Which is all very well and fine, but what would happen if they had a late addition to the family? One of those children we tend to refer to as an afterthought or, less flatteringly, an accident? What then? How awkward it would be to have to start regularly attending Church again, with no good explanation of why they’d stopped.

All these difficulties surrounding Christian schools are multiplied many times over when it comes to a Jewish school. After all, to be born Jewish you have to have a Jewish mother (makes sense – you can never be sure of the father: where things go in from may be unclear, but there’s little doubt where they come out). This means if your mother isn’t Jewish, you actually have to be converted to become a Jew.

This can be extremely painful. At one time I worked with a young woman who was as Jewish as anyone I have ever met. She stuck firmly to the dietary rules, she kept all the festivals, she went to services in the local Synagogue. But it was her father, not her mother, who was Jewish. So when I met her she was undergoing the demanding process of conversion, poor thing, and was extremely nervous about being accepted.

My mother is Jewish, which gives me a free pass to Judaism. I kept wanting to say to my colleague, ‘here, take my entrance ticket. I’m not going to be using it.’ Sadly, however, that isn’t how these things work.

Fortunately, she had a sensible rabbi. Long before she had completed the process of conversion, she was called in to face a panel charged with deciding whether she could be accepted. Inevitably, that made her even more nervous. However, the panel had realised, as anyone who knew her had, that she was deeply Jewish, to the core of her soul, and as sincere a convert as anyone could possibly want. The panel was delighted with her, she was accepted and was over the moon with the decision.

Not so fortunate was a woman in a recent case before our brand new Supreme Court, here in Britain (founded in October). She had converted to Judaism from Catholicism, but before a congregation not recognised by Orthodox Jews as valid. So when she and her husband, who was born Jewish, applied for their son to be admitted to the Jewish Free School in North London, they were turned down, on the grounds that the boy was not a Jew.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that this was racial discrimination against the boy. The decision has greeted with consternation in the Jewish community. It seems that the greatest objection is that the decision means that non-Jewish judges will decide who is and who isn’t Jewish.

All this reminds me of the wonderful man, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who spread his message of kindness and tolerance in this country right up to his death in 1996. Unfortunately, he was a Reform Rabbi and many in the Orthodox Community refused to pay him any tribute on his death, on the grounds that he was not a Jew.
I heard one of his friends responding on the radio. ‘What a pity they didn’t tell the Nazis he wasn’t Jewish,’ he pointed out, ‘it might have spared him the time he spent in Auschwitz.’

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