I have a confession to make. I work professionally in the Jewish community. A large amount of my social life is in the Jewish community. I bore my non-Jewish housemate with stories of the politics of the Jewish community. And yet, at school, my Jewish identity was effectively nil.
I went to a non-Jewish state school (funny we think of it in those terms; really, it was just a “school”!) in south Buckinghamshire called Dr Challoner’s Grammar School. It had 1,800 pupils and at any one time perhaps 20 Jews. It was a happy, multiethnic, academic place, with excellent exam results, some inspiring teachers, a progressive ethos… and essentially no Jewish life. I am told by my Jewish friends who were at Challoner’s at the same time that there were on occasion Jewish lunch and learns, although I have no recollection of them. Many of the Jewish pupils went to Jewish youth movements, or chederim, but certainly Judaism was not part of my schooling.Wind forward seven years, and I now work for UJIA on a project called JAMS (Jewish Activities in Mainstream Schools). We work, in effect, to reduce the number of Robin Mosses; Jewish young people who have no Jewish engagement at their non-Jewish school. We work in 19 schools across London and Essex, plus a smaller number in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow, and run more than 600 educational sessions a year. UJIA JAMS is a thriving project, which works for both the school Jewish Societies (we make running J-Soc logistically easy, provide food and offer training) and the rest of the Jewish community We provide access to Jewish pupils in non-Jewish schools for more than 120 communal organisations and individuals.
The challenges of working in non-Jewish schools are numerous, though not always obvious. One issue that we do not face is antisemitism. All of the schools we work in actively encourage their Jewish Society, because they see it as a vital cultural part of the school community. Similarly, buy-in from pupils is not an issue. Numbers at sessions vary, but overall there is clearly a desire for a Jewish space at school and the pupils seem to both enjoy and learn.
Demographics present issues for us. The rise and rise of Jewish schooling has creating a situation whereby there are still a few “fortress Jewish” non-Jewish schools, with large populations, but some schools that once had hundreds of Jewish pupils (for instance, QE Boys in Barnet and Beale High School in Essex) now have a few dozen Jews only. As a JAMS speaker, you might one week go to Habs Boys in Elstree for a lunch and learn with upwards of 60 pupils, and then head out to Bancrofts School in Essex the next day and speak to ten. The commitment of so many of our speakers to go to schools with few Jewish pupils is commendable, and essential; these are the pupils who might not have any other significant Jewish education otherwise.
Geography is another interesting challenge. Two-thirds of British Jewry lives in London, and within London we tend to cluster in relatively few postcodes. Getting educational activities to these pupils is comparatively straightforward. But what about the one Jewish pupil in a school in Aberdeen? Or the several hundred Jewish pupils each year who are at boarding schools? Or the many Jewish pupils at schools in South London, but whose spread is so thin that no one school has enough to make lunchtime activities viable? We, as a community, must be committed to provided engagement opportunities for them too, yet traditional methods are not going to be suitable.
One answer is provided by technology. The power of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other online platforms is immense and largely untapped at the moment. Young people now have two often-parallel but sometimes-intertwined lives, a traditional, “offline”, face-to-face presence and a vast, sprawling, (inter)national, diverse, multi-faceted online existence. Young people today engage with each other and the rest of the world in a totally new and exciting way, and the rest of us are just catching up. UJIA JAMS is looking into how the opportunities technology presents might be best utilised. If we could be harnessing the best Jewish content and targeting it to those Jewish young people outside of scope of lunchtime, speaker-based activities, we have yet another way to build Jewish identity.
UJIA JAMS is strengthening Jewish identity because of, not despite, the choices of Jewish families to send their young people to non-Jewish schools. It’s a project that can only be of benefit to the young people, their schools and the Jewish community as a whole.
Robin Moss is the UJIA JAMS Fieldworker, working to engage Jewish pupils at non-Jewish schools in exciting educational activities that deepen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. He was for two years a movement worker for LJY-Netzer, the youth movement of Liberal Judaism. He is also co-chairing the Limmud chevruta project, teaches at one cheder and head-teaches at another. He graduated from the University of Oxford with a Masters in Physics and Philosophy, and now co-ordinates a Jewish philosophy reading group in London. The views expressed in this article are personal only.