OPINION: The tense battleground of religion in schools is not a Jewish Issue

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OPINION: The tense battleground of religion in schools is not a Jewish Issue

Having independent faith schools alongside state schools showcases the UK as a live-and-let-live model for students, writes Shimon Cohen.

Stock photo of children outside a school.
Stock photo of children outside a school.

A school, which under court order cannot be named until January, is currently embroiled in a culture war over pupils practicing and pushing their religion.

Bomb scares, death threats, bricks into teachers’ houses, and now High Court involvement has become the norm in this battle over freedom of religion in what was considered “one of the best-regarded state comprehensives in England”.

Properly, the right to freedom of religion or belief is meant to create a culture of tolerance and acceptability, a live-and-let-live society in which, to quote Scriptures, “a man can live by his faith” too. Yet this right is being weaponised in a holy war against mainstream schools’ desire to cater to students of all beliefs or none.

That unfortunate English state comprehensive is just the latest victim in these conflicts, in a very real clash between faith and general education, respective rights and religious practices, and active aggression versus passive tolerance.

Shimon Cohen

These recent cases, of the encroaching demands of religious segments within schools and even general society, is alarming to many. All religions and all schools, be they state or independent, are caught in the crosshairs of generalisations. But not all groups fancy these culture wars.

However, these concerns, arguably, do not pertain to one educational sector in which I am quite involved: the UK’s Haredi schools. These independent schools from across the UK’s strictly-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish communities serve thousands of parents and students in various cities, who all seek to maintain an education based on traditional Jewish values.

They are the prime example of the live-and-let-live attitude that the right to freedom of religion or belief intends to foster. There are no clashes between prayer and lunchtime, no intimidatory behaviour from pupils demanding others to fast on solemn days, and no mistrust and violence, cliques or conflicts between students, staff, parents, or governors, as the

Tabloids have written concerning the school described above. The reason for this is simple. These are independent schools, in which everyone wants to adhere to a similar faith and practices, an institution for like-minded youths, with parents, teachers, and school leaders all being on the same page.

In Haredi communities, their homes and synagogues continue to play a large, stable role in education and communal life, bolstering the education offered within the schools.

In fact, there is such strong unity of purpose within this educational community that operates within a three-pronged system, with our young taught life lessons from both the home, their faith establishment (church or synagogue, say), and at school, much like the UK did in decades past.

This triangular system provides a holistic, supportive and reinforcing framework for children and young people today, in an age when many are battling loneliness and a lack of belonging.

In Haredi communities, their homes and synagogues continue to play a large, stable role in education and communal life, bolstering the education offered within the schools.

This sector, having built successful faith schools does not need the High Court and, as I am proud to work towards, need to be recognised as perfect examples of how the right for freedom or belief is a right for each group to practice what they want, not to intimidate others.

Such is true within the context of so-called “religious cliques” within state schools and also regarding secularist campaign groups targeting religious communities.

Having such independent faith schools existing side-by-side with state schools is the surest way of teaching students across the country that the UK is a model of live and let live.

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