How Jewish Is the Only Jewish School in Scotland?

The fourth and final installment in Anshel Pfeffer's series on Jews north of the English border.

GIFFNOCK, WEST GLASGOW - The scrum of children milling around the playground outside the small school could well be a sight in any suburb around the world. A closer look, though, allows one to detect intriguing variations between the small pupils in their school uniforms. Some of the boys are playing bareheaded, others wear baseball caps, a few have yarmulkes on, and here and there is a boy with tzitzit (ritual fringes ) flying around him as he runs across the yard. Among the girls gossiping by the slides, there is less variation, but a couple are wearing scarves. At the end of the day, a similar contrast can be seen between the parents, a few mothers wearing Sikh shawls.

Welcome to Calderwood Lodge, the only Jewish day school in Scotland and the focus of much communal pride - as well as concern and a growing measure of controversy.

Calderwood Lodge, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, is an interesting barometer of the current situation and future prospects of Glasgow's Jewish community. The school has 149 pupils up to the age of 12, and another 30 in its preschool classes. These numbers don't seem to bode well for the future of the community. There are no official statistics, but community leaders estimate that around 80 percent of Glasgow's Jewish children attend Calderwood Lodge. Further dampening these numbers is the number of non-Jewish pupils at the school, rumored to be as high as 30 percent, though the school's management will not divulge the precise number.

The path Calderwood Lodge has been forced to tread has been similar to that of other Jewish schools in northern England and other places where shrinking provincial communities have had to face similar dilemmas and accept non-Jewish pupils to ensure their schools' survival. In some of these "Jewish" institutions, Jewish children are now a small minority, while in Glasgow at least, they can at least describe their admissions policy as "inclusivity."

Still, the diverse school population plays into the continuing debate over the school's identity and character. Calderwood Lodge's current definition is a "nondenominational school with a Jewish ethos," reflecting the fact that the school is run by the local council of East Renfrewshire, and is not under the jurisdiction of any specific Jewish religious or communal body. But just what does "a Jewish ethos" mean?

Answering this question would be a challenge to any Jewish educator, but for Vanessa Thomson, Calderwood Lodge's non-Jewish "head-teacher," as a school principal is called in Britain, it is even more intriguing. Exuding intense enthusiasm for her rare role, she explains that her job at the school is making that ethos "more meaningful and strengthening their Jewish identity, showing how it drives a community and strengthens everyone's identity."

How is that done?

Like the principal of every other primary school in Scotland, she has to teach a set curriculum of general studies and incorporate two additional elements - "Ivrit" and "kodesh." Together with a staff of Jewish and non-Jewish teachers, Thomson undertakes to integrate a wide range of Jewish values, culture, history and religious practices into the school's life. The ethos is ensured by basic elements, such as school vacations being arranged according to the Jewish calendar and kosher meals. The pupils visit the Jewish old-age home and receive financial assistance from local Jewish charities to subsidize school trips for children of needy families.

In their last year at the school, in grade 7, children travel to Amsterdam, a trip that includes a visit Anne Frank's house, as part of their Holocaust education. Since most Jewish children will be celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah after leaving the school, in their last year they participate in a "transition" program run by Britain's main pro-Israel fund-raising organization, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, which also includes their being twinned with children of Ethiopian immigrant families in Israel who are also coming of age.

Every Friday afternoon, all the pupils and teachers join in a Kabbalat Shabbat assembly, run by the children, including an abbreviated Friday night service and zemirot (Sabbath songs ) in Hebrew as well as a short summary of the weekly Torah reading. In addition, the school has been developing educational programs that include introduction of Jewish themes into general subjects, such as the story of Jewish slavery and the Exodus as part of history lessons on ancient Egypt, and Holocaust commemoration in art classes. Even a cooking class is an opportunity for a short tutorial on the rules of kashrut, during which the children learn that pepperoni and other meats are not approved toppings for kosher pizza.

Jewish values are universal

The entire school curriculum is compulsory for all pupils, Jewish or not, and the staff are emphatic about the attraction of Calderwood Lodge to non-Jewish families.

"Non-Jews send their kids here from a deliberate decision that they feel the school's values equate with their family values," says Thomson. "The families that have chosen to do that had heard about the school, its values and how we respect one another here." The large minority of non-Jewish pupils does not change the school's identity, says deputy head-teacher Maureen Langman, who has been at the institution for 20 years: "Everyone who comes here has had to agree to the Jewish ethos. People accept that we teach Jewish values, but we are very aware that these are also universal values."

"The kids are very accepting of the differences between them, and there are Jewish, half-Jewish, non-Jewish, Muslim children here," says Rachel Tiefenbrun, a mother to three pupils at Calderwood Lodge.

For some members of the community, this is not enough Judaism, and in recent months, controversy has been growing around Calderwood Lodge. Fifty years ago, the school was founded by the Zionist Federation, at the time one of the more influential Jewish organizations in Glasgow. For its first three decades, Calderwood Lodge existed as a private school. Twenty years ago, as demographics and rising costs took their toll, the school was transferred to the ownership of the local authority, which took responsibility for the operating costs and the salary of the teachers for general subjects. Jewish education remained under a separate communal organization and all parents continued to pay an additional fee that underwrote the teaching of religious and Hebrew studies.

But for many parents, the additional cost became prohibitive. "It meant that parents were paying 70 pounds a month per child, and some parents, have two or three children so it added up," says Tony Tankel, chairman of the school's parents organization. To alleviate the costs, two years ago, the parents agreed with the local authority that it would take responsibility for the school's entire curriculum, including Jewish studies, and would pay for the additional costs. Effectively, this meant that the religious studies in Scotland's only Jewish school would be supervised by the national Inspectorate of Education, rather than by a communal or rabbinical body.

"A majority of parents were happy with the change, and it is a very good fit with the local authority," says Tankel. But while members of the parents organization are very supportive of the new arrangement, not all of the local community is so pleased.

Calderwood Lodge "used to be regarded as one of the jewels in the community's crown," says one veteran community official. "Now someone should take a good look at what is going on there." The complaints are focused on what some parents claim is a "diluting" of the Jewish element of the school's curriculum. Most community members have preferred not to speak out openly; many have children at the school and others are involved in its affairs in other ways. One parent explained that, "I am very unhappy with recent changes, but the school is an excellent one and is central to our community." Other parents claimed that over the last two years, Jewish studies had been sidelined and the time devoted to them has been reduced.

The Parents Council angrily refutes these claims. Ziv Dotan, a father of two children at the school and a member of the council says that "the Jewish content is excellent and my kids know lots about the hagim [holidays], minhagim [traditions] and history. As an Israeli, I can say that they learn here more about Jewish life than they would in many schools in Israel. I think there is a good emphasis on Jewish values, Jewish ethos and their integration in daily life."

One of those complaining has been the local Chabad rabbi, Chaim Jacobs, whose wife Sora was a teacher at the school until last year, when, as he puts it, she was "chased out of Calderwood Lodge." The school told me that Jacobs' employment at the school was ended because she insisted on teaching "by her methods."

Head-teacher Thomson defends the new organization, saying that "we can plan together, all the staff, since the change, and work on school-year projects together. There are still individual classes for Kodesh and Ivrit, but there is more cross-subject work and it is in the children's best interests. We never forget that the school serves its community. I'm not hearing from parents that they're not happy with the Kodesh classes. One parent asked for a specific change and was very happy with our receptiveness."

"It takes time to adapt to change," says Tony Tankel, who claims that some of the critics, including those from more religious families, do not send their children to Calderwood Lodge, preferring for their own reasons a non-Jewish school. He also stresses the fact that the demographic changes in the city's Jewish community mean the school cannot afford to accept only children from Jewish families, not to mention only those who are Jewish according to Orthodox rabbinical law.

"We have children from a variety of backgrounds, and as we have to ensure the school's survival, it has to compete and we represent people from different streams. Some people have agendas and they don't come to the parents' council. They don't realize that membership in the school's community doesn't necessarily mean synagogue membership. There are other ways, and our identity is much more pluralistic."

'Teething issues'

The leaders of Glasgow's Jewish community are embarrassed by the way the controversy has burst out in to the open, with articles in the British Jewish press, and about the way it has involved local authorities.

Edward Isaacs, president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, tried to sound conciliatory when he told Haaretz that "change always means teething issues. Jewish kids go to Calderwood and get there an excellent secular education, but there are one or two concerns about Jewish education."

Isaacs and other members of the JRC recently approached East Renfrewshire Council, without consulting the parents committee, and demanded in the name of the community that Calderwood Lodge be defined as "denominational school" - meaning that a communal body would have a say in the school's management and the selection of teachers and that the religious studies would become subject to the supervision of a rabbi from one of Glasgow's Orthodox synagogues.

The Parents Council responded in a letter to parents saying that "Calderwood Lodge draws children from a diverse range of Jewish backgrounds - Orthodox, Reform, homes where one parent is Jewish but not practicing, and so forth. The school has to be inclusive of all Jewish children and exclude no one ... To appoint a representative of a particular branch of Judaism as the sole supervisor of religious instruction would lead inexorably to a serious imbalance, in that it would privilege that branch over all others."

Some of the older members of the Glasgow Jewish community remember days when most of the Jewish boys and girls were not enrolled in Jewish day schools, but still succeeded to acquire a solid Jewish education by going four times a week to heder (Hebrew school ). But even the successful heders in Jewish neighborhoods closed down years ago, partly due to competition from the new heder set up by Chabad, and parents today report that they cannot get their kids to show much enthusiasm for extra Jewish instruction.

At the same time, Jewish educators in Scotland mention the still-thriving heder in the smaller community of Edinburgh, where there is no Jewish day school, as an example of effective communal education. "We are afraid to fight too hard over the direction of Calderwood Lodge," says one parent, "even if we are rather critical, because it seems as if this is the last bastion ensuring the Jewish identity of another generation in Glasgow."

One young parent who grew up in Glasgow and moved to Israel two years ago is astonished at the bickering going on back in his hometown. "They don't realize how good they have it," he says, "a small, intimate and inclusive Jewish school with a strong sense of identity and pluralism. It's so rare that I almost wish I could send my daughter to live with her grandparents and go to Calderwood Lodge."


This is the fourth and final installment in a series on Scottish Jewry.