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Religion and Diversity: London school breaks down barriers

ByEmma Conn

Mar 3, 2020

In a time of both increasing diversity and increasing factionalism in the UK and the rest of the world, one primary school in London is making an effort to bridge religious and cultural gaps in a unique way.

Simon Marks Primary School in Central London is first and foremost a Jewish school; however, half of their student population belongs to another religion or is agnostic. Many students will only have one Jewish parent or none at all.  Although the school is affiliated with the United Synagogue Modern Orthodox organisation, it prides itself on the religious diversity of its student body and faculty, and is committed to teaching tolerance and respect through a Jewish lens.

According to its website, the school is ‘always looking for and welcomes new members into our community from both Jewish and non-Jewish families’. The headteacher, Gulcan Metin Asdoyuran, herself of Turkish-Muslim descent, believes that teaching children through a Jewish perspective can be helpful as she equates Jewish values with those of respect and tolerance that the British hold dear.

The students, along with basic Maths, English, and History, learn Hebrew and celebrate Jewish holidays as they occur. Every Friday, the student body will gather to welcome in the Sabbath. The boys are made to wear kippot, traditional Jewish headwear, and the girls wear skirts, which is typical of Orthodox Jewish schools; however, there is no separation of the genders.

Headteacher Metin has taken steps to ensure that the religion of all students is appreciated, including hiring Rabbi Nicholas Goldmeier and an educational team with ‘respect for all faiths’. Syed Gilani, a teacher at Simon Marks and a practicing Muslim, says that he believes Judaism and Islam have many values in common, and that we need to ‘expose children to different viewpoints and beliefs to prepare them to become positive global citizens’. This sentiment is reflected by Rabbi Goldmeier, who believes that ‘if a child is going to grow up in a culturally diverse world, that is the way you have to educate him’.

Jewish attitudes towards education generally revolve around one central belief: that it is highly important. Often called ‘The People of the Book,’ Jewish people regard educating one’s children in a place of high social esteem, especially when they are studying the Torah, the Jewish Bible. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Jewish people are the best educated religious group in the world, with an average of 13.4 years of education and many going on to higher education. This is both attributed to the cultural value of education in the Jewish community, and the fact that Jews are mostly concentrated in Western countries like the United States and Israel.

These values are clearly presented in the practices of Simon Marks, and the children seem to enjoy them. One child, a ten-year-old of Colombian-Christian background, says he likes the food, stories and songs that accompany many Jewish holidays. Another child, five-year-old Nazli Ela, says that learning Hebrew is ‘really fun,’ and she will often explain the Jewish holidays to her Muslim mother. The children recognise the diverse environment they’re learning in, and one student comments that her favourite part of school is that ‘everyone is different’.

The parents, for the most part, seem to have a similar outlook. Necibe Ozturk, mother of Nazli Ela, believes that it is important that her daughter prays, but unimportant whether she does so in Hebrew or in Arabic. She says, ‘We are all praying for the same things: being grateful – just saying thanks – so that is good’. When her daughter calls God Hashem, the Jewish name, she says it doesn’t matter because she believes that all people are praying to the same God.

The school has strong links to Israel, which certainly ruffles some feathers as tension and conflict increase in Gaza. There have been several reported criminal rights abuses committed by both sides against the other since Israel was founded, and both sides continue to harbour hostility towards one another. The pupils at Simon Marks regularly video-chat with students in Israel and have seen performances from Israeli students in their classes. Many parents don’t seem to mind this, including Ozturk, who believes that Simon Marks is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather about ‘respect, understanding, kindness, [and] generosity’.

A school that teaches those values seems very much needed in the UK today. In 2019, 1,805 incidents of antisemitism were reported in the UK, a 7% increase from the previous year, and the highest number ever logged in a calendar year. Headteacher Metin believes that Simon Marks’ approach will help lessen antisemitism in the community. ‘If you teach non-Jewish children about the Jewish faith,’ she says, ‘they’re likely to have a positive attitude later in life.’

The things we learn and are exposed to as children shape how we look at the world for the rest of our lives. If we are taught tolerance and respect, we will exhibit those traits later in life and eventually pass them on to our children, who will then treat others in the same way. It may be a cliché, but children are our future, and investing in their moral character now will make the world a better place tomorrow. Hopefully we will see others following the example set by this ground-breaking school.

Image: via simonmarks.hackney.sch.uk

By Emma Conn

Editor in Chief