London’s thriving ‘Limmud’ high school shows pluralism gaining ground among UK Jews

The Jewish Community Secondary School is the only one in Britain where you can find Reform and Orthodox prayer books on the same classroom shelf. The departing principal says it is changing the entire community

Jeremy Stowe-Lindner with his pupils. (photo credit: courtesy)
Jeremy Stowe-Lindner with his pupils. (photo credit: courtesy)

LONDON — Jeremy Stowe-Lindner had been a member of a mainstream Orthodox community all his life, but several years ago, while looking to send his children to a local Reform school, he started attending a Reform synagogue. He was soon hooked.

“I liked the community, its outward-looking nature, the socially-conscious practices,” he says. “But most of all it was the all-pervading presence of music, which I find spiritually uplifting. No one in our family plays the piano but I’ve just bought one. I feel every family should have one. It’s my most frivolous purchase!”

Nowadays, Stowe-Lindner belongs to both Orthodox and Reform synagogues, and the symbolism could not be stronger. Until the end of this month, he is the head-teacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), Britain’s only pluralistic Jewish high school. It opened in North London just two years ago, after nearly a decade of planning and over the strenuous objections of London’s Orthodox establishment. It is still perceived as a novelty.

In Britain, unlike in North America, the Orthodox dominate most communal institutions, including the schools, for historical reasons. Around two thirds of Anglo-Jews identify with Orthodox synagogues, although many are non-observant. There are still only four non-Orthodox Jewish primary schools in the UK, so most non-Orthodox children who attend Jewish schools do so under Orthodox auspices.

Lunch time at London's JCoSS. (photo credit: courtesy)
Lunch time at London’s JCoSS. (photo credit: courtesy)

Because the Orthodox authorities do not recognize the validity of Masorti, Reform and Liberal Judaism – the UK’s non-Orthodox streams – there is also often considerable inter-denominational tension.

Stowe-Lindner, who is moving to head Bialik College, another cross-communal school in Melbourne, Australia, expects that JCoSS will eventually change not only its students, but British Jewish culture.

‘We are on an unashamed mission to fertilize not just tolerance – because that’s co-existence – but respect for difference throughout the community’

“Over time we will have 600-800 Jewish families, all of whom will experience a cross-communal, respectful vision for the Jewish community,” he says in a parting interview. “The impact of these graduates will be felt in a generation’s time. They will influence how the community relates to itself. We are on an unashamed mission to fertilize not just tolerance – because that’s co-existence – but respect for difference throughout the community.”

He is already seeing a difference. Half the school’s students – currently around 340 and scheduled to rise to 1,310 when it reaches full capacity in 2017 – identify with Orthodox synagogues. A quarter identify with Masorti, which is roughly the British equivalent to Conservative, and the rest are Reform and secular.

“Most Orthodox members and many Orthodox leaders are quietly, and even publicly, supportive of the school now,” says Stowe-Lindner. “It was always a small minority of the Orthodox leadership that had concerns, and now a very small minority still have concerns…

“When Orthodox people come to the school, they realize that what’s going on here is really good. The hostility to the school was more a fear of it. Now it exists, temperatures have cooled.”

He has also observed an impact on the opposite side of the religious spectrum. Among some on the left, there is ideological opposition to faith-based schools, out of the belief that children of all religions should be learning together, particularly when schools are state-funded – as the majority of the UK’s Jewish schools are.

Jeremy Stowe-Lindner. (photo credit: courtesy)
Jeremy Stowe-Lindner. (photo credit: courtesy)

“Suddenly they had a Jewish school that is teaching their Judaism; a faith school they might be able to support because it teaches other faiths and is outward-looking,” says Stowe-Lindner. “It’s a challenge for them too.”

JCoSS was first conceived in 2001 by a group of mainly non-Orthodox parents who were dissatisfied with the range of educational options available. But Stowe-Lindner says the school has two other “parents” as well.

The first is Limmud, the UK’s flagship Jewish learning program, which is aggressively non-partisan. From the outset the British Orthodox establishment treated it with suspicion and by-and-large boycotted it. But over 30 years it has developed an enthusiastic following in almost every other part of the community, including among many members of Orthodox synagogues, who see its inclusiveness as refreshing.

‘The groundwork for the acceptance of diversity in Jewish education was done for us by Limmud… It was the enzyme’

“The groundwork for the acceptance of diversity in Jewish education was done for us by Limmud,” says Stowe-Lindner. “It created a demand to transfer the open-minded educational events popping up in the community into a Jewish school. It was the enzyme.”

This explains, he says, why JCoSS is over-subscribed, with 600 applications for 180 places last year.

“A community that identifies with a Limmud vision now sees in JCoSS a Limmud high school,” he says. “People say to me, who wouldn’t come to this school? I answer, if you wouldn’t go to Limmud [for religious reasons], don’t go to this school.”

The second, more negative “parent” was a series of scandals in the last decade concerning children who were rejected from the government-funded Jewish Free School (JFS), Europe’s largest Jewish day school with 2,100 students, which is run under Orthodox auspices but attended mainly by non-observant families. Until 2009, applicants to most Jewish schools had to have their Jewish status confirmed as halachically acceptable by the office of the British chief rabbi.The parents of the children who were rejected were converts, either through Masorti or through Orthodox religious courts in Israel, which were apparently not stringent enough for the London Beth Din.

This sparked a surge of anger in the normally placid Anglo-Jewish community. The controversy came to a head when a child whose mother had converted through a non-Orthodox beit din (religious court) sued the school through the civil courts – and in 2009, won.

The case, says Stowe-Lindner, “emboldened not just parents of non-halachic children but outward-looking cross-communal parents. There were Limmudnik parents who said, we don’t want a school that behaves like this.”

As JCoSS gained momentum, the Orthodox establishment’s objections grew more vocal. The concerns were three-fold: first, that the school would teach “heretical forms of Judaism.” Second, that the school would admit children who were not halachically Jewish, blurring boundaries and leading to inter-marriage. This was eventually made irrelevant by the JFS case, as the Supreme Court ruled that any child who practiced Judaism could be admitted to a Jewish school regardless of halachic status. Most Jewish schools now have students who are not Jewish by Orthodox definitions.

‘I don’t believe that at JCoSS the percentage of non-halachic Jews, which is very small, is any different to other Jewish schools. And I don’t care – that’s the difference’

“I don’t believe that at JCoSS the percentage of non-halachic Jews, which is very small, is any different to other Jewish schools,” says Stowe-Lindner. “And I don’t care – that’s the difference.”

The third major objection, which came not just from Orthodox circles, was that London could not support another 180 secondary school places each year without threatening the viability of existing Jewish schools. In the past 30 years, Jewish school enrollment has doubled from around 13,000 to 26,000. However, while it is hard to get into schools in some areas (particularly at the primary level), in others there is a surplus of places.

Stowe-Lindner is adamant that a small over-supply of places is in fact good.

Opening day. (photo credit: courtesy)
Opening day. (photo credit: courtesy)

“We are the first ones to offer something different,” he says. “We all have to up our game – it must be good for Jewish education. Now to get into Jewish school, they will compete for you rather than the other way around. It’s a marketplace.”

The JCoSS building is indisputably magnificent. At £48 million ($75 million), paid for mostly by public funding, it is the UK’s most expensive state school building (like most Jewish schools in the UK, the state pays for JCoSS’s secular studies, while the parents support the Jewish Studies program with a voluntary fee. In JCoSS this is £1,350, or $2,100 per term).

As a Science Specialist College, JCoSS has a particularly developed science wing. Another wing is dedicated to students with autistic spectrum disorders. Many of the 14 current students (there will be 50 when at full capacity) spend at least some time integrated with the mainstream children. At the moment, two of the students are haredi.

JCoSS offers 12 types of prayer groups, ranging from separate-sex Orthodox quorums to yoga and egalitarian progressive meetings

Before the school opened, Stowe-Lindner visited north American community schools to learn from their experience. The JCoSS hallways have a distinctly north American feel, with rows of lockers. The school’s prayer options are modeled on examples Stowe-Lindner saw in Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland and Gann Academy in Boston. Although not on a daily basis, JCoSS offers 12 types of prayer groups, ranging from separate-sex Orthodox quorums to yoga and egalitarian progressive meetings.

“I was impressed by the integration of formal and informal education, the ethos and decision-making process” in the north American schools, he says. Another lesson was that “when it comes to religious decisions, we see them as educational opportunities rather than religious dilemmas.

“We must remember we are a school. Schools which try to behave like a beit din end up in the High Court,” he adds, in a reference to the JFS case.

So on Shabbatonim, for example, lights cannot be switched on and off in public areas in order to accommodate Orthodox students, but in the students’ own rooms there is more freedom. Last year the school offered optional programs on second day Yom Tov, but next year the institution will be completely closed.

Twenty-five per cent of the school’s curriculum is either Jewish Studies or Hebrew language – a higher percentage than in many Orthodox schools. In the classrooms, Orthodox and Reform prayer books sit on shelves side-by-side.

So have the students been mixed up by the pluralistic ethos, as many of JcoSS’s critics fear?

‘As young Jews we should be empowering them to make informed choices about how to live their lives. We shouldn’t be wrapping up teenage minds in cotton wool’

“This is not a primary school,” says Stowe-Lindner. “The students are learning to become young adults, and are faced with choices every day. As young Jews we should be empowering them to make informed choices about how to live their lives. We shouldn’t be wrapping up teenage minds in cotton wool.”

Stowe-Lindner, 38, grew up in Leeds in northern England, and has a background as a teacher of history, politics and religious education. Before joining JCoSS in 2009, he was deputy head teacher of two non-Jewish schools in London.

“I only wanted to come into the Jewish school system as a head, and I only wanted to come to this school,” he says. “I wanted to learn from colleagues in non-Jewish sector and bring their external professionalism into my own Jewish school.”

The decision to move to Australia after just three-and-a-half years at JCoSS was “not easy”. His wife Adele is originally from Melbourne, where her parents still live. Stowe-Lindner already holds Australian permanent residency, and his two young sons are dual citizens.

Pupils at JCoSS. (photo credit: courtesy)
Pupils at JCoSS. (photo credit: courtesy)

But while Stowe-Lindner’s reasons for emigrating are strictly personal, he notes a trend of senior British Jewish educators moving to high-profile positions overseas. These include James Kennard at Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, one of the Jewish world’s largest Jewish schools; Jonathan Cannon, head of school at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland; and Paul Shaviv (full disclosure: my father), who is moving in September from the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, North America’s largest community high school, to Ramaz in New York.

Stowe-Lindner blames the British brain drain on “lack of training, development, and support for current and future senior leaders of Jewish schools. The community needs to look at this. My personal feeling, very positively, is that Hebrew teaching and Jewish education curriculum and teaching are increasingly on the radar. But the next stage needs to be senior leadership capacity.

“It is no coincidence that there are British heads in schools in Australia, US and Canada – but not Canadian, American or Australians running our schools. The pattern is unhealthy for our community. We need to develop strategies to love professionally good people.”

As he leaves Anglo-Jewry behind, he is at least optimistic that JCoSS’s pluralistic vision is gaining ground.

“The community is increasingly getting people working well together,” says Stowe-Lindner. “If you look at Jewish organizations like Limmud or the Jewish Volunteering Network, people are coming together across denominations. The challenge is to make a socially-responsible, outward-looking, cross-communal vision for Judaism and Jewish practice into a reality.”

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