What should Jewish schools teach apart from the usual ‘core’ curriculum subjects? The recent Jewish Chronicle front page exposé, headlined, ‘Jewish school pupils taught how to cure gays’ (20.01.12), whatever the actual facts of the story, raises crucial issues about the role of Jewish schools in equipping Jewish children to live in today’s world.

There has been endless debate about who may attend Jewish schools; about the Jewish status of pupils, and whether or not, for example, children whose mothers are Liberal or Reform converts qualify for admission. Maybe the time has come to focus on what Jewish schools actually teach their pupils.

So, should Jewish schools teach their students about sexuality and gender? Should Jewish schools enable pupils to explore Jewish values in an effort to engage with contemporary understandings of sexuality and gender and new developments in the wider society? And apart from referring to traditional Jewish texts, should they also include contemporary interpretations, as well as new Jewish teachings, like those developed by Liberal Judaism, on the inclusion of lesbian and gay Jews and same-sex partnerships?

What do you think? Maybe you’re a Jewish parent who sends their children to a Jewish school, precisely to ensure that the education they receive is thoroughly Jewish in the traditional sense and equips them to resist new social trends about equality and inclusion? Or, maybe you’re a Jewish parent, who wants your children to be able to engage confidently in today’s world, equipped with relevant Jewish teachings? Or, maybe you’re a Jewish parent who, simply, wants to do what you can to ensure your child develops Jewish social networks, so that, ultimately he or she will meet a nice Jewish girl or boy – provided, of course, he doesn’t find a nice Jewish boy and she doesn’t find a nice Jewish girl? Is that why the question of who attends Jewish schools has always been more important than what the schools teach?

In 2010, a new Jewish secondary school, known as JCoSS, was established “for the whole Jewish Community” (http://www.jcoss.org/), with an inclusive environment geared to respecting and integrating the full spectrum of Jewish backgrounds. But that’s not all: JCoSS is also demonstrating that Jewish schools can adopt a curriculum that enables their pupils to draw on Jewish values concerning “Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness), Tzedakah (justice) and Tikun Olam (repair of the world)” and engage with contemporary society.

Now, I don’t have an axe to grind, where Jewish schools are concerned: I’m not a Jewish parent and I don’t live in north-west London. But as a rabbi, helping to ensure that there is a future for the Jewish people is in my job description. That’s why I’m interested in what Jewish schools teach their students – especially, since fewer and fewer Jewish children are attending synagogue chadarim to get their Jewish education, as a consequence of the development of Jewish schools.

And it’s not just about what Jewish schools teach about sexuality and gender. We live in a multicultural society. Should Jewish schools be insulating their pupils from the wider community, with its challenging array of other cultures, religions and peoples? Or, should Jewish schools be equipping students with Jewish confidence and a thorough Jewish literacy that enables them to engage fruitfully with others, and make a positive contribution the multicultural mix?

We speak of living in a ‘multicultural society’, but the truth is, society is more of a patchwork of cultures, with most people devoting most of their time and energy to their own particular patch, and rarely meeting, let alone engaging with, people who are different from themselves. Don’t all Jewish schools have a responsibility to create opportunities for their students to engage with children from other cultures – to get to know Muslims and Hindus (to mention two other faith-groups that also reside in north-west London), as well as people who are black, Asian, and so on?

What is the future of Jewish life in Britain? Unless Jewish schools equip their pupils to live in today’s world there are at least two possible consequences: after leaving their Jewish schools, some young people, wishing to explore new horizons, may opt to leave Jewish communal life altogether – and sometimes forever…; after leaving their Jewish schools, some graduates may simply move on to the next safe Jewish environment that insulates them from the wider world around them… Neither of these options are tenable if there is going to be a viable Jewish future.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue