The decision by a London-area Orthodox day school to admit students with only a Jewish father is provoking outrage in parts of the community. King Solomon High School’s move brought a vehement reaction from some members of the local community, including Rabbi Alex Chapper, who said the policy "effectively recognizes the liberal definition of who is a Jew."
The school’s action also has re-opened a debate about the future of publicly funded Jewish schooling in the face of shifting Jewish demographics in London and surrounding areas.
Rabbi James Kennard, King Solomon’s headmaster, defended the move. With a 2003 English law prohibiting state-funded religious schools from holding empty places for members of their own faith, the school had to seek solutions to fill the spaces or admit students with no Jewish ancestry.
Under the law, all schools must have 30 students in each classroom.
"It wasn’t our decision. The law dictates what we must do to fill our spots," said Spencer Lewis, the school’s director of Jewish studies.
Government funding covers 100 percent of secular studies and staffing costs and 90 percent of capital costs for the building and facilities. Jewish studies are funded by contributions, usually from students’ parents.
Every state-aided Jewish school had to devise similar criteria to fill empty spaces, Kennard said, so other schools must have similar rules on their books — but changing demographics in northeast London meant King Solomon had to go ahead and implement them.
Applications last year dropped by about 40 students, to 165. Officials said the school, which has 150 places to fill each year, admitted a "small" number of students with only a Jewish father, but would not specify how many.
School leaders say a decline in the local northeast London Jewish community, combined with increased competition from new schools in north London, created the conditions that made King Solomon the first United Synagogue affiliate school to implement its next-in-line policy.
"Young families are just not staying in that area," Goulden said.
The demographic challenge does not exist in every part of London: According to Goulden, the rest of the city’s Jewish schools can’t keep up with demand.
While he refuted a BBC story last week claiming that only one in 12 students applying to Jewish schools is admitted, he agreed that demand was high, citing one of the new primary schools being opened this fall by parents whose children were rejected from other schools.
It’s unclear who made the final decision on the patrilineal policy, and Chapper, spiritual leader of the Ilford Federation Synagogue, blamed school governors as well.
"An Orthodox school shouldn’t be giving this message. It’s wrong," he told JTA. "If a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, an Orthodox school shouldn’t give out the message that it’s OK."
As alternatives, Chapper suggested removing a grade, reducing admission numbers or admitting students with no Jewish ancestry, adding that accepting Muslim students would be better than the current situation.
Kennard contended that going against the enrollment policy is "not an option" and that, if the school did so, it would lose its funding and have to become private.
Chapper contended that most parents in his congregation condemn the decision.
"A majority of parents chose to send their children to the school in the knowledge that they would be mixing with only Jewish children, and this is now undermined," he said in a recent sermon. "Parents of existing pupils have been betrayed."
Kennard, for his part, said he hadn’t heard any complaints from parents. In addition, a number of opinions in support of the school’s move have appeared on Jewish Web sites and bulletin boards, such as somethingjewish.co.uk.
Discussions between Chapper and the school’s governors are ongoing.
"The policy is set for 2007, but I’ve been having meetings with school leaders and hope we can find alternatives for 2008," Chapper said. "I’m against the decision the governors made, not the school itself."
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.