In the midst of mounting day-school costs and the continuing recession, when parents and principals dream that vouchers may ease their financial burdens, comes a cautionary tale.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that a Jewish school in North London illegally refused admission to a student whose mother’s non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism did not meet the school’s standards. (See page 41.)
The state-supported Jewish Free School has an enviable problem: more applicants than space to accommodate them. It apparently aimed to solve that problem with a halachic “litmus test,” giving preferential treatment to those the office of the chief rabbi recognizes as Jews.
The court ruled that the school had broken the Race Relations Act – that its admissions policy was based on ethnicity and hence discriminatory. But this is clearly not the case. If the boy’s mother had converted under Orthodox auspices, he would likely have been accepted.
We will not get into a discussion here about “Who is a Jew” or who gets to go to a Jewish school. Jewish identity can be a disputacious topic. But it is not a secular institution’s place to define it. (To give the court some credit, it acknowledged that the school was not racist in the accepted sense.)
This misrule may lead to more misleading rules. Should a Jewish school demand and monitor its applicants’ active participation in synagogue life? More charitable giving and volunteering? (The school began instituting such requirements for “Jewish practice” after an earlier court ruling.) That’s not a bad idea, but should a school – to create a Jewish but non-“ethnic” standard for acceptance – become a religious watchdog, somewhat like the Taliban measuring the length of a man’s beard to gauge his piety?
And might that mean that a young atheist – or even a gentile – who “religiously” attends synagogue services and gives tzedakah would get priority?
The ruling may also have repercussions in how schools of other religious denominations admit students. It should also cause us to rethink the connection between government aid and our own schools.
Certain kinds of government oversight are welcome: fire safety standards and inspections, for example. And some kinds of government support, like funds for remedial and security aid, ought to be allocated for students in all schools, public and private.
The British ruling, however, is a visible and troubling demonstration of what it might mean to accept vouchers or other large-scale government support. The government may assert its “ownership,” in ways we might not like.