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Saturday, 22 March 2008

U.K. Jewish school sued for barring pupil over conversion

U.K. Jewish school sued for barring pupil over conversion

By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent, and Saul Sadka
A British couple is suing the largest and oldest Jewish high school over
the school's refusal to accept their son as a student because his mother
did not convert in an Orthodox ceremony.

The case, now before the High Court in London, has attracted wide media
attention in the U.K. and is a source of contention in the Jewish
community.

Most of the 1,900 students in the Jewish Free School (JFS), founded in
1732,do not come from Orthodox homes. Nevertheless, the school is
identified with the central stream of British Jewry, the United
Synagogue, which accepts the authority of the London Beth Din, or
rabbinic court. The London rabbinic court is considered more strict on
matters of conversion than rabbinic courts in Israel.

The parents, who have remained anonymous, describe as racist and illegal
the school's refusal to accept their son because his mother was
converted to Judaism in a Conservative ceremony. They say this is racist
and illegal because the school receives government funding.

Other couples whose children were refused entry by the JFS have also
joined the suit.

One of the parents, David Lightman, father of 14-year-old Maya, said his
wife underwent an Orthodox conversion in Israel 20 years ago, and
although they keep a kosher home, go to synagogue every Saturday and are
very active in the community, the London religious court said she had
not been sincere in her conversion because he is a Cohen (descendant of
a priest), and according to Jewish law should not marry a convert.

"Fundamentally it is running a racist admissions policy. You could eat
bacon every day and have no problem but a religiously practicing Jew
cannot attend," Lightman told Haaretz last month.

"There is a small cabal at the top that has Anglo-Jewry by the throat
and holds the Chief Rabbi in the palm of their hands," he added.

"[Chief Rabbi] Jonathan Sacks won't speak to us, we are very much pawns
in this situation," says Lightman. "I am an ex-pupil, my sisters
attended the school, my wife is head of English yet they will not take
my daughter," he says.

According to Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of the Liberal Judaism
movement in Britain, "the acceptance policy of the school is
discriminatory and motivated by political considerations. They are
trying to shore up the beth din and the United Synagogue establishment,
while 35 percent of British Jews belong to Reform and Liberal streams.
JFS is state-funded and should serve the entire Jewish community."

A spokesman for the school declined to respond during the hearing. But
in a position paper the school released, it said no discriminatory
policy existed and argued that according to British law, it was within
its rights to prefer certain students in keeping with rules set for the
school by Britain's chief rabbi.

The British Department of Education responded that "the ministry does
not intervene in internal school policy."

What is really going on is a power struggle between the British Chief
rabbinate and its Israeli counterpart," says Geoffrey Alderman, an
academic involved in the case. "The Chief Rabbi wants the London Beit
Din to be the only body competent to convert British people anywhere in
the world. Mrs Lightman is merely a pawn in this dispute," he adds.

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