The past two weeks have been interesting. With the academic year almost over at Leo Baeck College, I have made a temporary return to teaching, re-joining my former humanities colleagues at a comprehensive school in north-west London. It is not a faith school and Jewish teachers and students are few, although not wholly absent.
Having spent the past year in an almost exclusively Jewish environment, albeit a very open and outward-looking one, it was strange to be back.
Almost immediately, I returned to my role as ‘resource person’ for Jews and Judaism, available to answer questions on kashrut, Israel, the Shoah, Torah and anything else which sparks the curiosity of those around me.
The context is one of teaching history and religious education, yet the interest goes beyond that. Staff and students alike genuinely want to know about us. The problem is they have so few opportunities to meet us.
There is something rather ironic that in a school which could hardly be more multicultural, there are so few Jews. Part of the reason, of course, is the preponderance of Jewish day schools.
The pros and cons of choosing such an education will be rehearsed each time a child approaches school age, at least in homes where it remains a question at all, and everyone must make up his or her own mind.
However, we cannot ignore the bigger picture. The absence of Jewish children in secular schools has an affect not only on them, but on the other children who will never meet them, nor get to know them. And, of course, the same applies to Jewish teachers.
The model of a Jewish child attending a secular school, proud in his or her identity, well versed in Judaism, yet with a broad outlook and a wide circle of friends, remains a viable one.
Prejudice is born of ignorance and school is where it can be overcome. Not in carefully-planned lessons, but in the building of relationships in which we learn to understand ‘the other’, because we are sitting alongside him and he has become our friend.