Almost 7,000 Orthodox Jews in north London gathered for a communal prayer to safeguard Torah education on Tuesday morning, in the largest demonstration of concern the capital has seen in years.
The huge show of force, which included pupils, rabbis, teachers and parents, came amid rising angst that the Government’s school inspectorate Ofsted is targeting the religious Jewish community for schools’ refusal to teach protected characteristics covered by the Equalities Act 2010.
Community leaders used the occasion to warn again “secular forces” that are seen to threaten Orthodox values, after several inspections downgraded Orthodox schools for reasons in part based on the controversial concept of “British values”.
Rabbi Dovid Frand, president of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, warned of “influential secular forces seeking to impinge on our rights”.
Speakers praised Prime Minister Theresa May for her statements about the importance of faith in society, and Frand said: “We thank God that we are privileged to live in a tolerant country with a Government that has repeated pledged to safeguard religion and religious practice.”
He added: “We have all gathered together in prayer in the fervent hope that we can continue to practice and teach our Torah-true values for generations to come.”
Representatives from the Stamford Hill-based Jewish Community Council have been among those lobbying for a more lenient Government line on education, in particular the teaching of different sexualities and genders.
JCC founder Levi Schapiro said the gathering was “yet another example of our community coming together to show unity on this issue and how serious we are about it”.
He said this had “long been a stressful issue,” adding: “We hope that with unity and prayer things will move in the right direction, but it is a sad reality that in modern Britain we need to lobby Government to protect our traditional religious values.”
Rabbis at the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, an umbrella group, took out full-page adverts in newspapers about the mass prayer meeting.
Earlier this month, Jewish representatives told the government that Jews feel caught between “anti-extremism and secularisation” and that the idea of ‘British values’ is seen as “hostile”.
The comments were made in a Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) response to a Government consultation on integration, prompted by a 2016 review by Dame Louise Casey, which highlighted the negative effects of “ethnic concentrations”.
In its response to a Government Green Paper proposing actions to combat “divisiveness,” the JLC said: “Jews feel as if they have been caught between the fight against extremism and the secularisation it has promoted. This is far from ideal and we feel much work is needed to address this.”
It added that the term ‘British Values’ also needed to be “unpicked,” saying: “Rightly or wrongly, for many, the term has negative connotations. Many instinctively know what is meant by it but for many, it is a hostile term. Promoting why it is something which defends everyone is crucial to detoxifying the term.”
Ofsted inspectors assessing schools’ promotion of ‘British values’ of tolerance and respect for others have highlighted problems at religious schools, whose leaderships refuse to teach pupils about different sexualities or gender identities, a clash acknowledged by Ofsted in its most recent annual report.
“The effective functioning of British society depends on some fundamental shared values as well as a culture of mutual tolerance and respect,” wrote Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman.
“We have found an increasing number of conservative religious schools where the legal requirements that set the expectations for shared values and tolerance clash with community expectations. The schools are, therefore, deliberately choosing not to meet these standards.”
She said this tension was “leading to the creation of illegal schools that avoid teaching the unifying messages,” which she said was “of great concern”.