Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Panning the PANs – Part 2 - On Yesodey Hatorah Admissions

Before turning to the specifics of the consultation something must also be said about the Yesodey Hatorah Schools and its admission procedure as well as its relationship, if that's the right word, with Beis Yaakov (BY). BY, it will be recalled, was recently established and has only a primary school.

The Yesodey Hatorah girls school was established towards the end of the 1940s or thereabout. They were the first frum girls' school in the area and served the local 'frum' community as the term was understood at that time. For e.g. initially classes were co-ed even for 12 years olds which would be unheard of today. The background of the parent body was also not necessarily what would nowadays be classed frum.

As the community grew in number and as the frum world became frummer Yesodey Hatorah moved with the times. Yet despite this it has always been the school which traditionally served the middle ground of the community and remains so to this day. During the 1960s and 70s and first half of the 1980s when there was only Lubavitch, Bnos and Satmar, that meant practically everyone else. Towards the end of the 1980s and more so in the 1990s when the community's exponential growth began and the ‘right’ veered ever more east YHS began being seen as, and still is to a degree, the 'moderate' and 'soft' choice. It may be due to trivialities like the length of hair and skirts, the denier of tights or driving mums but these things matter round here. Out of this arose Beis Chinuch which started life as a frummer and holier version of Yesodey Hatorah and which overall still holds that position.

Not at all by coincidence, it was also around this time in the 1990s or so that Yesodey Hatorah became progressively more selective in its admissions. As Pinter openly says, he doesn't want to be 'left with' the downs and outs (though he is known to put it in far more colourful language).

This caused a great degree of anguish throughout the 1990s and 2000s and families were forced to move to North West London or to Manchester and even further afield because they simply had no school for their children. In other cases, parents were forced to remain with the school of their movement because the unaffiliated schools in the supposed middle ground, be it Yesodey Hatorah or Beis Chinuch, would not accept them.

Those who suffered the worst were families from ‘irregular’ backgrounds. I am referring to ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘nebech’ families, single-parent families, Sephardim, balei tshuva and other non-‘heimish’ backgrounds who must suffer the indignities of a microscopic assessment before anyone will even consider them let alone accept them. They often have no family to fight their cause, no established community to turn to, no money or connections to flex some muscle on their behalf and so they must fall back on the unaffiliated Rabbonim, which is a parlous state indeed. These Rabbonim themselves, without the backing of a large community, can possibly provide sympathy and empathy and lots of chizuk but little else.

Yet for a long time, besides those who suffered no one really did anything. Because if the schools act as an effective means to keep ‘undesirables’ out and those most likely to stray on the straight and narrow who exactly round here in authority will complain? And in Yesodey Hatorah’s case, if there is anyone whom Pinter will most gleefully reject it is those parents who were born in one mode and who try to rise above (or fall below depending on your viewpoint) their station. He doesn't want to be the first port of call for those smart alecs to whom their parents' and rabbis' lifestyle is no longer good enough. And so long that it is in his power to get such families to conform or move away he will fulfil that role with a relish and with the nod and wink of his elevated peers.

At a practical level, the main gatekeeping necessary at Yesodey Hatorah (as well as at other schools) is at the primary school entry stage since relatively few apply at a later stage, whether during the primary or secondary years or from primary to secondary. This process at YH Primary as at YHS throughout this period has been and remains the sole preserve, if not the actual creation, of Pinter himself. (At the boys’ school where he is not in charge, admissions are far more relaxed.) This is not to say that he controls every single admission but it is he who devises the strategies to control admission and who oversees its execution. And when there are rejections, of which there is no shortage, it is also to his door, if not his feet, that all communications, negotiations, begging, pleading, phone calls, tears and all the rest are directed.

A Yesodey Hatorah rejection letter


Those who are rejected will testify to the run-arounds, half-truths and outright lies they are given, the deflecting of blame and the sheer contempt in the manner they are treated. The rejection letter will give no reason and simply tell you that you’re not accepted. After that it’s all verbal with numerous phone calls where you can’t get through, visits with no one to speak to, promises that someone will call back and appointments which are not kept and every other tactic designed to wear down the rejects in the hope they will go away or be broken into submission so that they’ll remember forever who the boss is. Except in the very difficult cases when anonymous written threats are received of being reported for benefits fiddling.

The reason why the admission problem is particularly acute with Yesodey Hatorah because it is a communal school, founded by the community and funded by the community but still they are accountable to no one. They even market themselves as the ‘town’s school’. Yet when it comes to admissions there is no formal procedure, no criteria published, no admissions committee worth speaking of (always ‘anonymous’) and no appeals system and it is at the whim of a single individual that the destiny of entire families are decided. The fact that Pinter likes to present himself to the media and to politicians as the smiling, human face of Stamford Hill also does not help those with the misfortune to encounter his darker side on local display. Even the various Chasidic movements which are far from democratic have their own authorities and their own internal dynamics, be they rabbinical or lay, who are the ultimate decisors and where there exists an appellate system of sorts though not necessarily as formally as the term is usually understood. Similarly, Beis Chinuch is also led by a committee and is guided by local Rabbonim without a single strongman wielding all the power. But with Yesodey Hatorah all the power rests with one individual and who wields it indiscriminately.

Din Torah Ruling on YHS Admissions Committee


In one instance in 2005 there was a Din Torah which the local Beis Din accepted after initial refusals and much cajoling. Pinter appeared in person and alone to represent the school. The Beis Din went on to rule that an admission committee will be set up by the local Rabbinate to oversee admissions. Yet no such committee was ever set up. The ruling was based on the school's constitution at the time which had nothing to say on admissions and a lot to say on governance but within a short time that charity ‘ceased to exist’ and a new charity with a different constitution took its place. Needless to say, the large lay and rabbinical committees in the original constitution did not make it over to the new one and the rejections continued apace.

Although the voluntary-aided status of YH Seniors should have put paid to such arbitrary practices in fact little changed. For a start, as I said earlier, few change schools at secondary school. There is therefore relatively little demand for places at secondary school since most girls are by then settled. Yesodey Hatorah has of course done nothing to change that and, as will be seen later, put in much though and effort to ensure it remains this way. Besides, not many know how the local authority application system works and of those who dare to enquire many are fobbed off by the school about availability and criteria.

There is then the concern about complaining to an outside body which many fear may constitute 'mesire' (snitching) and which Pinter himself bandies about when faced with more difficult applicants. The end result is that few take their grievances to the local authority and are even less likely to appeal a decision against them. That said, on the whole, those who apply and know how to go about it do get in simply because YHS knows it has no alternative.

As a result of the above, YHS is almost entirely a continuation of YH Primary with the primary school acting as its de facto feeder school. This is not official, though, as the Schools Admissions Code (para. 1.9.l) prohibits a publicly funded school from nominating an independent school as a feeder.

Notwithstanding the above, there was, and remains a concern that 'undesirables' could potentially turn up at YHS in droves and exclude even what YHS sees as its core applicants from YHS Primary, its feeder school in all but name. To cover for this, YHS drafted admissions criteria (an earlier version of which was found by the Schools Adjudicator to be unlawful*), giving the impression that only Chareidi girls who matched a certain definition of 'charedi' would be admitted to the school. To this end they concocted a definition of 'chareidi'* despite that no such definition exists anywhere in the world. It includes such nonsense as 'Very long skirts are not accepted within our Charedi חרדי community and as such are forbidden'.

Besides it being a non-sequitur it simply is not true. There is a huge difference between something not being the norm to not being 'accepted' and to being forbidden. This, however, is a good example of the social engineering implicit in these rules. There are plenty of Chareidi communities in London and elsewhere where long skirts are the norm and no one has ever banned them. But it is usually slightly more ‘modern’ groups though still Chareidi who wear such skirts. It is these that YHS is trying to keep on the wrong side of the tall gates and if possible to get them to move away altogether. Quite besides that, the rules in the admissions criteria on skirts, wigs and the like are hardly eligible criteria at all. Admissions criteria presuppose that people are adhering to a certain set of rules and by which they are judged rather than setting the very rules solely for those same admissions purposes.

But it is in the definitions itself that their true intentions are revealed. According to the admissions criteria,
“In these arrangements “Charedi Jewish girl” means a girl who is a member of a Charedi family that lives in accordance with Charedi principles and ethics as prescribed by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.”
Yet no such definition by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC) exists. UOHC’s 2012 constitution (Articles of Association) does not even contain the word Chareidi at all. At clause 26.1 it stipulates that to hold office a person must abide “by Jewish law as laid down by the Shulchan Oruch together with its commentaries, as interpreted by the Rabbinate” but otherwise there are no prescriptive rules. Similarly, UOHC encompasses all kinds from shuls in North West like Hendon Adath and Munks all the way to Satmar. Thus, the idea that there is a single definition of ‘Charedi Jewish Girl’ as set out in those criteria would be ludicrous if it was not so shamelessly deceptive for the purpose of excluding pupils.

The admissions procedures were indeed challenged though on different grounds and the Schools Adjudicator upheld almost all of the complaints. The main grounds of challenge were that the admissions procedure gave the impression that it applied to all applicants whereas in truth it applied only if the school was oversubscribed. This was not an oversight on the part of the school. I recall that when the school opened Joe Lobenstein writing in his Ben Yitzchok column made much of the definition of 'chareidi' and how it would ensure the purity of the school, or however he put it. (Though Lobenstein served as the chair of governors of YHS, he never made that point clear even when he excoriated other Jewish state-aided schools for being state-aided.)

It is also the obsession with admissions which explains why Yesodey Hatorah chose the state aid route for its secondary school rather than its primary school. In general, chareidi schools in the UK have preferred state aided status for primary schools rather than secondary schools. This applies to Pardes House Primary which is state aided as opposed to its grammar school which is not. It is the same at Beis Yaakov in North-West London and was also the case until recently with Menorah Primary versus Menorah High. It is due to the fewer demands of the Department for Education places on the curriculum of primary schools and also due to the greater demands for religious studies in secondary schools.

Yesodey Hatorah by contrast despite purporting to be the most chareidi of the lot chose the reverse route. The only plausible explanation for this is that if its primary school was state aided it would mean having to accept all applicants by a transparent set of rules at the start of their school life and that is something the powers there will not accept. By contrast, with only the secondary school being state aided and combined with the fact that there are not many transfers locally at secondary school age it believed it could work round admissions and which until now has indeed gone to plan.

Make no mistake as to the level of Pinter’s involvement in all of this at the Secondary School despite there being a notional Admission sub-committee. As an employed Principal of the school he should have no involvement in admissions at all. Yet, as these extract of the Board of Governors' minutes show he is involved at every level. From setting admission numbers, admissions application, dealing with the ‘problem’ of over-capacity to appeals where he represented the school and which he ‘fortunately’ won.




I am setting all this out to show how for Yesodey Hatorah admissions is not some passing fad or side issue but an all-encompassing obsession over many years. It is only with this backdrop that the consultation for a Middle School makes any sense.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Panning the PANs: On Yesodey Hatorah’s proposed ‘Middle School’ – Part 1


As first reported on the linked Twitter account, the state funded Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School (YHS) is consulting on 'annexing' a Year 5 and Year 6 to its existing school and creating a Middle School for those classes.

As it currently stands YHS consists of Years 7-11 which is the norm for secondary schools. It also has a notional 6th form (known locally as a 'sem') on its premises called Be'er Miriam Seminary with two years which are the equivalent of Years 12-13. This is a private fee-paying institution of which Abraham Pinter is a trustee. Its charitable income in its last financial report was £362,052. It pays no rent to YHS for its use of the school premises.

YHS has now published a consultation document on this annexation but to understand the issues and the possible motives for YHS's proposals it is important to set out the background of girls' schools in Stamford Hill's Chareidi community.

Just one disclaimer before I proceed. I must apologise in advance for using terms, in inverted comas where I remember, that are often judgemental in origin and intent and particularly cringe-inducing when used for self-serving purposes. As unpleasant as they are, I did not coin them and nor have I formed the community and sub-communities that often define themselves within by those terms. This, however, is the reality of the situation and which I cannot escape try as I may. So irrespective of my own views I have to resort to such terms if I am to provide a frank summary of the situation.

*

The Stamford Hill community has a number of girls’ schools ranging from Lubavitch on the 'left' and which draws its intake from beyond the broader community to B'nos Yerushalayim on the 'right' which serves the extreme right of Satmar and similarly minded fringes. In the middle is a range of schools generally controlled by the Chasidic powerhouses like Satmar and Belz and more recently joined by Vizhnitz and Bobov. There is then an unaffiliated sector which consists of Beis Chinuch for the frummer end, Beis Yaakov for the moderate end and Yesodey Hatorah somewhere in the middle.

All the local girls schools, with one exception, run from nursery through to the end of secondary school. Round here nursery is often referred to as reception or infants, primary school is predominantly known as juniors and secondary school as seniors. In most cases nursery, primary and secondary schools are not separate schools and often not even different departments but simply a single school where you are enrolled at one end and emerge at the other at 16 years old and almost ready for a shidduch after a year or two in 'sem'. Sem, short for seminary, is our equivalent of 6th form and when a new round of applications and selections take place.

The single exception to this is Beis Yaakov (BY), which has only a primary school. BY was founded 6 years ago and its first cohort will graduate in the summer of this year. This class, as well as the classes below them every year henceforth, will need to find a new school to continue their secondary school education. And it is in light of the 'problem' of BY girls joining YHS that the current proposals and consultation must be considered.

Before moving on to the consultation itself it is also important to understand how parents round here generally choose a school for their children. Since most schools are affiliated to a Chasidic movement most parents belonging to the movement will enrol their children in that movement's schools. Where a movement does not have its own schools parents will typically choose (or 'send' as it’s referred to here) the movement closest to their affiliation. 'Close' in this sense may mean in origin and custom to wherever they are affiliated or with historical ties between the different movements. Another factor is also the parents' own level of observance and piety and so they might choose a school that is closest to their own worldview. Or shtetl-view if you like.

But overall, the selection of a school before primary school and then secondary school does not exist here in most cases because most parents 'belong' to this or that movement and so their choice is made up for them. And not only is the child likely to remain at that school for the entire duration of her school but it’s also where her siblings are likely to attend (and it may well influence where these children enrol their own children in generations to come). This is not only due to the way the schools are structured but also because of the manner and the reasoning behind the 'choice' in the first place. Similarly, there is relatively little movement between the schools of the different Chasidic sects as whatever motivated the parents to select a particular school in the first place it likely to remain in place for them for the rest of their lives.

That said, there is still a fair number of transfers between schools either between years or from primary to secondary. This is for a variety of reasons whether because a child does not settle well in to a school or issues arise whether from the school, the pupil or the parents' end and a transfer becomes necessary. In other cases parents may become disappointed with a school and they decide they want something different. It could be they consider the school too strict, too lax, too frum, too much homework or whatever. These parents may still belong to the movement but yet want something different for their child. This is more common amongst girls as affiliation is predominantly a patriarchal issue and so fathers will typically be more particular about their boys' affiliation and upbringing than mothers about their daughters.

Of this last lot there are then the parents who become 'enlightened', or 'modern' as it would be phrased here. Meaning, that as new parents when they were barely out of their teens they may have opted for a certain school because that is where they 'belonged', that is where his and her parents dictated, whether expressly or implicitly, the child must attend and that is the school where it was as natural to send their child as it was natural for him to attend the shul to which the school is affiliated. In most cases it probably did not even occur to the parents that they had a choice and even if they did give it some though they may well have believed the propaganda pumped out by each movement on the superiority of their schools and the 'dangers' of venturing elsewhere.

However, as they mature and acquire their own identities they may realise that they want something more 'loose' or unaffiliated for their children and for themselves. In other cases it may be the pupil herself who has moved on and either wants to move to a new school or, in more 'extreme' cases, the school where she was first enrolled no longer wishes to keep her. When we say 'extreme' we're not talking anything as radical as an ear-helix piercing or a thumb ring but merely her hairstyle, her dress style, having the misfortune of being more assertive, prettier or more feminine than her classmates or any other nuance that brings her to the attention of the powers that be.

The above all rests on the premise that the child actually has a school to go to in the first place. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as many parents have come to learn to their anguish when they struggle to find a school for their nursery or primary school age child. There is a difference in this between the Chasidic schools and the unaffiliated. In general, each Chasidic movement will provide a place for the children of its adherents and so Chasidic parents will usually not struggle for a place provided they wish to enrol their child in the movement's schools. This is because 'belonging' to a Chasidus generally involves to a greater or lesser degree conforming to their mores and adhering to their rules and so those within are usually 'kosher' enough to get their kids in to the school. Chasidim also tend to look after their own and so even parents of a slightly more 'liberal' bent will still be well aware of the limits and the price they must pay to 'belong'. By contrast, those who are unaffiliated or whose movements do not run schools must live by different rules. So long that the parents are conformist, don't ruffle any feathers and don't stand out from the crowd they too will find a place with either one of the Chasidic or unaffiliated schools.

Where the problems arise is when parents of a Chasidic background veer too far from their own movement or where they decide that their movement's schools are not suitable for them. In the case of the unaffiliated it is a similar picture though the threshold tends to be higher as they have no movement they can turn to as of 'right' (provided they conform to some degree) that may choose to overlook their relatively minor indiscretions. The Chasidic schools outside their movement will say you don't 'belong' to us and we don't want other people's 'garbage' (yes, it's often put as crudely as that) while unaffiliated schools like Beis Chinuch or YHS also turn them down on similar grounds, that if they are not 'kosher' for their own they’re definitely not kosher enough for these unaffiliated schools. The unaffiliated schools have the added excuse with Chasidic parents, that these parents have schools ready to accept them and if the parents are unwilling to conform to their own movement’s schools, well then that is their problem.

Such parents are thus left without a school and the kids must languish at home because no school will accept them. True, Lubavitch remains open to such parents and many children do indeed end up there as a very last resort. But for a multitude of reasons, and rightly or wrongly, Lubavitch is not considered locally as a core communal school despite its location in the area. Lubavitch pupil base is also from a far wider spectrum and these parents still feel very much part of the community where their family and friends are and want their children reared within the same community.

As mentioned above, children round here generally stick with the school where they started their school life and so the aforementioned problems with admissions are more common in nursery or primary school because once accepted the child will tend to remain there and if they do decide to change it is more often than not difficult to do so with without a fight. Problems do arise where a child is 'kicked out' of a school or where the parents are desperate to change schools but these are relatively few and far between.

In considering the above it is easy to forget that this is only how things are and not how they ought to be. However, since all the local schools but one (Lubavitch aside) are private schools they do not have to account to anyone for their decisions on admissions and on how they run their schools. It is futile arguing on how things could and should be different since they raise their own budgets and set their own rules.

The one exception to this is Yesodey Hatorah Seniors which is the first and at the moment only Chareidi voluntary-aided school in Stamford Hill. (There used to be Avigdor primary school but that was even further away to the 'left' than Lubavitch.) Since YH Seniors is, notionally at least, subject to the laws on school admissions it might have been expexted that things would be run rather differently there but then that would be without taking into account that the Yesodey Hatorah Schools are run as the personal fiefdom of the Pinter family with the girls schools 'belonging' to the Abraham Pinter branch.

True, they publish a prospectus and admissions criteria, as they must, applications are submitted to the local authority, decisions are taken (again, notionally) by a sub-committee of school governors and rejections can be appealed. But then Russia also has a constitution and courts but we still know how the place is run. And it is in how YH Seniors is run in practice that we come to the crux of the 'problem' as YHS sees it and to the 'consultation' it is now holding.

In case it needs to be stated, this series of posts takes it as a given that Pinter is Yesodey Hatorah and Yesodey Hatorah is Pinter, in particular relating to the girls' schools and even more so in reference to admissions, and that the two are virtually interchangeable no matter how many boards, governors and trustees he hides behind.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

UOHC’s Eye Watering Stuff

UOHC-Thames Water Powerpoint by ifyoutickleus on Scribd

So UOHC brought to the meeting a Dayan, a lawyer, indeed a technician, a handful of arsekonim and a token woman. Truly eye watering stuff.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Stronger IN

So the moment of truth has finally arrived and I have decided to vote REMAIN. Here is why.

First and almost last is simply because the UK cannot go it alone. It doesn't mean the country will break down or fall apart (though with Scotland that too could happen) but simply that the UK that emerges after exit is complete will not be the same country it is now. It will not be as strong economically, financially, culturally and in so many other areas where we make a difference in the world by what is known as soft power.

In today's world it is the very largest countries and trading blocks that matter. In a world of the USA, China and the EU (without us) the UK stands not a chance. It may be the 5th largest economy in the world but that is precisely because it is a member of the EU and the rest of the world can buy its products and services and deal with it under the EU framework.

I could go on to quote economists, scientists, politicians and business leaders the world over who've been popping up in droves but there is hardly a need. If there is a choice between joining neighbouring countries in trying together to improve all our lives and make the world a better place or standing aside and withdraw into ourselves the answer, to me at least, is self-evident.

But we want our country back, say the Brexiters. The sovereignty of this country is being lost to Brussels, they complain. We are a plucky little country and we can go it alone. It was our finest moment in the 1941 and we can do it again.

But for the sake of what? For the right to decide our light bulbs, the suction of our vacuum cleaners and the speed of a cupa? Is that what was at stake in World War II and for which we fought? And who is to guarantee that it won't happen anyway if they become international standards (in which we have little say) or if it is introduced by a future Labour, or indeed, Conservative government? There are far more important things at stake than the regulations which exist in every country to some degree and much of which will have to be reinvented if Brexit was to win.

But, they say, Norway and Switzerland manage so why can't we? Well, there is a simple answer. Norway has a population of 5m and Switzerland 8m whereas Britain has 64m people. So what are we comparing here? Britain has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is a member of the G7, a nuclear power and her language is the international lingua franca. We may not lose all this overnight but our influence will wane and are we to risk giving it up for the sake of turning ourselves into Zurich gnomes? Zurich and Oslo may be pleasant enough places but only London is one of the greatest metropolis in the world for tourism, art, culture and of course finance. Show anyone outside Britain a map and ask them to point to Norway, Switzerland and the UK and which are they most likely to get right?

It is this soft power as well as the financial muscle which is at stake. Losers quit and quitting in this case can lead to national decline, economic strife and social unrest. And all for the sake of what? We begged Europe in the 1970s to be accepted, we got our way on the Euro, on the social charter and other issues. Even on immigration, just look at the barriers as you enter the tunnel in Calais to see that immigrants from outside the EU cannot come in easily. And as for people from EU countries, let them come.

When I ask Brexiters whether they prefer Poles, Romanians or people from other continents I don't need to tell you what the reply is. We are surrounded by immigrants running convenience stores, cleaning our homes and offices, builders, plumbers, mechanics and the like. If Brits wanted to do these jobs the Europeans wouldn't come. My father and grandparents were once immigrants from Europe and so is most of our community. I like the ease with which I can travel throughout the continent and I am happy to share that comfort with people from neighbouring countries. When the US introduced draconian new visa rules in the aftermath of 9/11 it was the EU that could object whereas Britain on its own would be laughed out of court. Just see how we capitulated to the US on the Iraq war where Britain had full sovereignty.

It is always easier to wage war than to broker peace and peace is rarely perfect. Europe was twice at war in the last century and on each occasion it dragged with it the entire world. If you asked a soldier in the trenches or a passenger on a cattle truck what they thought of a Europe at peace for more than 80 years in return for some powers transferred to a central body in which we all have a say, what would their response have been? Where is the sense in going it alone in a fast changing world where Russia is resurgent, China is belligerent and the USA pivots to Asia. Who will care for a tiny island singing Land of Hope and Glory and harking back to its heyday of empire and literary giants if it refuses to join in with its neighbours in embracing the future?

And as for the supposed benefits of £350m a week, even if we assume it is true it will never reach us. The government is not run from a single cash register from which you draw set amounts. At the end of the cold war we were promised a peace dividend, yet I do not recall a hospital, school or other project which was built because the cold war had come to an end. Government is a vast pit and by digging up one part you do not fill another. The money, whatever it amounts to, is swallowed up somewhere else and in this case much of it will be spent replicating what we already have from Brussels.

So I come to my last point which is the very crude question, is it good for the Jews? While the question can be a legitimate and important one it is also often raised by those who cannot think beyond Jewish interests. Europe has, for better and very much for worse, been a home to Jews for 2000 years and perhaps more. We have seen the best and the worst of Europe though our history in the UK has not always been rosy either.

However, as a project the EU has been at worst Jew-neutral and at best a very positive development. True there have been calls from Europe on Shechitah but then so have there been calls in the UK. There are indeed very nasty and virulently antisemitic political parties in Europe but they have no sway over EU politics or policy. From the UK to the Baltics it is the neo-nazi parties who are bitterly opposed to EU membership. It is tyrants like Putin and dangerous nutters like Trump who hate the EU and look what they’re doing or propose to do to their own countries and to their neighbours.

The EU has the protection of minorities at its heart and from which we as a people benefit. We more than anyone else know the consequences of a divided Europe and we should be happy that Europe with the UK in its midst is a stable, prosperous and vibrant place.

For these reasons I am IN.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Sink or Drown

So we're in the headlines again. This time no one's been arrested or convicted, no abuse has been covered up, no school is faced with closure and no followers of 2 rival rebbes have come to blows. Not only are we in the headlines but some of us even got a ride on a chopper - for free - while the consolation prize for the rest was a trip on a real lifeboat.

This is mamesh the matzev of matzevs except that, strangely, Hamodia sunk the story on page 39, which is probably where Pravda buried its story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I must be exaggerating because of course there was no disaster, nuclear or otherwise, and all that happened was that the lives of 34 boys were at risk but anyhow nothing happened in the end especially after Shomrim turned up on the scene so what's all the fuss about?

Well, let me tell you exactly what the fuss is about. The fuss is that our schools, communal leaders, rabbis, askonim and the whole bang lot of individuals, committees, institutions, charities, organisations, va'ads and whatnots give not one hoot for our children or our adults for that matter. You read that correctly: not one hoot. That is what the fuss is about though given the washes we're put through some might think even that's not a great deal.

When it's abuse we say it's not true because the allegers have left the community and so perforce must be lying. When a guy, a menahel no less, is caught on camera red handed he's apparently showing affection to the poor kid. And when we are finally forced to confront some uncomfortable truths because the lies and cover-ups have exhausted themselves we switch gears. Sexual issues are too sensitive for our poor fragile souls and so it's best for the victims to be sent packing while the perpetrators continue plying their wicked trade unhindered. And all the while doubting whether the modern world's fuss about the whole subject is all that it's cooked up to be.

If it's corporal punishment the tone shifts yet again. The odd beating has never done any harm, it's being phased out and it was just a one, or two or three, off. When it's accidents, well we have Hatzole so no one needs to know. And when it's just a downright lousy education in decrepit buildings, it's because we care for their souls and that is what really matters.

We have become so desensitised to what we're capable of that even after a saga like this it took headlines in the national and local press - but never our own - to tell us exactly what went wrong. It would not be fair to name the yeshive concerned because they are no worse than any of our other local schools or yeshives. One could argue they are better because while the rest of the kids were dragged off to the most idiotic demonstration only our turnip-brained unemployed are capable of putting on, this yeshive at least gave its kids a day off. They also did not take them to Chessington Zoo or Trent Park or some other unimaginative outing but travelled further afield to Dover with its white cliffs and stark coast line. Mind you they did take some local flak but that was not for the risks they exposed the kids to but rather for taking the boys on frivolous excursions a few days before Shavuos. Just imagine the boys had been introduced to Vera Lynn and The White Cliffs of Dover, now that would have been a scandal.

As a catalogue of near, and actual, mishaps has shown, whether it's Clissold Park, Dover or Kathmandu, as far as some of us are concerned, the dress code must always remain the same. Our kit has supposedly seen us through two thousand years of exile and so it should be able to withstand the odd rough patch thrown up by the British Isles. Thus, whether it's the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia, Cumbria or, as in this case, below the Dover cliffs, forget Berghaus or North Face. It's black city shoes, buttoned white shirts, suit trousers with a below-knee jacket and that on top of a waistcoat. A concession of Tzitzis on top of shirt may be made but only for the super cool trying to earn their Nike swoosh. Just don’t do it, ought to be their moto.

This attitude is not confined to the UK and covers not just kids. To the contrary the more of us there are the worse it gets. Just over a year ago, two people were trampled to death at the funeral of Rav Wosner in Bnei Brak. Of course, accidents can happen anywhere but it’s the reaction that marks out the responsible and sensible from the daft and reckless.

No enquiry was set up, no one has been prosecuted, no one has lost his (always 'his') job and no one has been held accountable in any way. That is two people dead. Passed away. Went up to Heaven. Went to the Garden of Eden. Whichever euphemism you choose to employ will not hide the plain and simple fact. Two people were killed by the gross negligence of reckless idiots who assembled a huge crowd late at night without any prior planning and co-ordination and contrary to the advice given to them.

There were all the tears in the world for the bride of one of the victims and for the other victim's widow and child because we are experts at after-the-event nausea. Yet a single stitch in time is just too much to fathom. And when it comes to finger pointing it's anyone but ourselves. Those responsible nebech have wives and kids, and they didn't mean it, they really meant well, consider the amount of chesed they've done in their lives and all the other excuses we so expertly produce for those rare occasions when our denials are too much even for ourselves.

So it comes as no surprise that here too our response was as if on cue. In its report on page 39, Hamodia published a photo not of the boys or the RNLI but of a Shomrim squaddie who seem to have moved on from nabbing muggers in Stamford Hill to coastguard rescue in Dover. It was left to the Hackney Gazette to ask the obvious question of how it was allowed to happen because to our newspapers the boys, sorry the bochurim, had simply 'got lost'. Lost, that is, despite 9 signs telling them not to do exactly what they went and did. As a friend said to me in shul, our community is like the person to whom a 'wet paint' sign is an invitation to poke a finger.

After all, where's the wisdom and ingenuity in following the well-worn path? Follow the tracks of the sheep, is a figurative exhortation to dress in yeshive-wear while out trekking but as for any practical application, well we just don't do the literal stuff. Rules are there to be broken and signs to be ignored. And our newspapers are there not as a fourth estate but to cover up for the other estates. They're there to admonish us for talking loshon hore and during chazoras hashatz but not for trifling matters like saving lives. That would fall into the category of rubbish recycling, gardening and other veiberishe zachn which real heimishe guys don't engage in. So the front-page headline was reserved for the 'UK' anti-education demo which in reality was nothing more than a morning off for Stamford Hill kiddies who were unlucky enough, or very lucky depending on your point of view, not to be taken to Dover for the day.

And lest I forget there was the reaction of the PR firm. The same Shimon Cohen who popped up in the aftermath of the Scottish misadventure 12 years ago showed his face yet again. In both incidents an 'investigation' was promised though this time 'parents' also made an heroic £5,000 donation. These are the same 'parents' who if not for the providence of mobile phones would presumably be donating to the defence fund of whoever was accused of whatever might have befallen the boys. Now add, chas v'cholilo, and chas v'sholem, and 'you mustn't say that' but still do nothing practical and hold no one to account. If I were one of the supposedly investigated I wouldn't lose a minute's sleep unless some outside body decides to poke its nose into our affairs and in which case expect a yom tefilo linked to an urgent fundraising drive.

But for now life goes back to normal. Boruch Hashem for the great miracle that nothing happened. The closer the shave with death the greater the ness and so all the more reason to be grateful for the Chasdei Hashem. Never mind that we have had several drownings in the last few years, all of which were the result of entering the water at unauthorised spots and at inadvisable times. Never mind that there was a drowning in Miami a few weeks ago where some chasidim took a dip close to signs warning of riptides. If you hold demos not to have to study geography how on earth will you discover what a tide is. The sea is dangerous, we know that, and if we survive it we have Hoidi on Friday evenings to thank for the miracles towards sea dwellers. And if we don't survive it well then it's a reminder that we must repent and show more respect to our gedoilim and dress tzniusdig and be grateful to Shomrim for averting an even greater disaster. Omein.