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A Jewish School’s Muslim Students

In England, Birmingham’s King David Primary School has a kosher kitchen, Hanukkah celebrations, and an Orthodox rabbi leading religious education—for mostly non-Jewish pupils

by
Aaron Drapkin
May 14, 2020
King David School via Twitter
King David School via Twitter
King David School via Twitter
King David School via Twitter

King David Primary School is, in some ways, a typical Jewish school. Students learn Hebrew and recite Jewish prayers every morning. They celebrate Jewish festivals, sing Jewish songs, and eat meals cooked in a kosher kitchen. What makes it unique is that about 75% of the students are Muslim.

King David is located in Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, and has approximately 250 students aged 3 to 11, the age that virtually all U.K. schoolchildren move on to secondary school. It’s the only Jewish school for at least 100 miles, in a city that’s home to only 2,000 Jews, a significant fraction of whom do not practice.

Despite its small numbers today, Birmingham has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the U.K., present in the city since the early 1700s. In this period, Birmingham was an attractive destination for European Jews fleeing persecution on the continent; the church had comparatively little sway here, making it popular with nonconformists of all creeds. More Jews came to Britain during the 1800s, and Birmingham’s community continued to grow—albeit not as quickly as communities in the north and south, swelled by migrants attempting to reach America via Liverpool or London only to run out of money before they could get there.

But that didn’t stop a vibrant community from developing. The Hebrew National School opened in 1843, 37 years before primary school education became compulsory. It continued to grow alongside a Jewish community thriving by the 1930s. A wealth of Jewish clubs and events were dotted across the city, including an arts society, drama clubs, and a Jewish Lads’ Brigade, as well as several synagogues.

Just two decades later, it was clear there would be challenges ahead. An extract from the 1952 Birmingham Jewish Recorder describes an “image of a community emerging so widely scattered geographically, and so diversified in its group associations, that it is scarcely possible to see the wood from the trees.”

The next 10 years saw the Jewish population in the city decline from an estimated 10,000 to around 6,000, and the Hebrew National School, which moved sites in 1965, was renamed King David Primary School. The next 20 years saw the city’s Jewish population decline further, to just 3,000. “A lot of people made aliyah … that’s been a steady thing over the years,” explained Mark Gee, who owned the last kosher butcher shop in Birmingham, which closed in 2013. “And children go off to university and don’t come back to Birmingham.” But the city is not an anomaly. “We used to deliver to Jewish shops in Nottingham, Leicester, Cardiff, and Oxford,” said Gee. “All of these places used to have kosher butchers. Birmingham has lasted a lot longer than other communities outside of London and Manchester.”

As the city’s Jewish community shrank over the next 30 years, other religious groups saw their numbers increase, none more so than Birmingham’s Islamic community. According to the most recent census data, by 2011, 1 in 5 Birmingham residents identified as Muslim—around half of whom were born overseas. Most of Birmingham’s Islamic community is of Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent, but Muslims from a variety of different countries in Africa and the Middle East—including Yemen, Iran, and Somalia—also call Birmingham home.

Today, Muslims make up almost one-third of the city’s total population, and since the middle of the 2000s, about three-quarters of King David’s pupils—a figure which is thought to be even higher today. Jewish students now account for around 15%, and a range of other faiths make up the difference. (A hugely multicultural city, Birmingham also has substantial Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist communities; 38% of the city is Christian, according to a 2018 population survey.)

The results of this unique situation are remarkable. Far from feeling like a school no longer fit for purpose, King David has carved out an excellent reputation for itself in the local community, which has a significant Muslim population, while retaining an Orthodox Jewish ethos. The kitchen is completely kosher, female pupils have to wear skirts, and the director of religious education, Rabbi Yossi Jacobs, is chief minister of one of Birmingham’s Orthodox synagogues, Singers Hill.

The city is home to several Islamic primary schools—but as there are more Muslim students than there are places in those schools, and as not all Muslim families have one nearby, many parents educate their children at other faiths’ schools closer to home. That being said, there are plenty of other primary schools in King David’s neighborhood, and in fact, many Muslim families cite reasons other than proximity when explaining why they chose the Jewish school.

The school’s kosher kitchen for example, gives it the edge over faith schools that serve food forbidden in both Islam and Judaism. “Most foods that are kosher are also halal, so I think as a parent that puts you at ease,” stated ex-pupil Rafia Begum.

And it isn’t just the kitchen King David is known for. Nhazia Qayum, a Muslim parent whose youngest left the school a couple of years ago, said, “It has a good academic reputation. It’s a well-disciplined school that instilled good values in my children, which is why I decided to send my youngest there nine years later.”

Zaqia Raja, another Muslim parent, moved her child from a fee-paying school to King David, which is tuition free: “It was on recommendation from other Muslim families that had previously gone to the school. They felt King David was good academically.” Her decision has since been vindicated. “Seeing how positive the school has been for my son,” she said, “I’m going to take it upon myself to learn more about Judaism.”

Grades aren’t the only reason places are sought after. Other Muslim parents of current students cited the “ethical and moral framework that is given prominence,” and noted that “the two religions share common values, so we would want our children to be taught that.”

Jewish parents are similarly enthusiastic about King David’s ethos. “I do think that they end up, whether they do this very consciously or just because it is a mix, with a deep respect for different groups,” confirmed Dr. Karen Skinazi, who previously educated her children in New Jersey but is now a parent at King David after moving to the U.K.

Chris Jennings, another Jewish parent who sent five of his six children to the school, remarked that King David proves it is “possible to keep the values of a community whilst being inclusive of other people.”

The unusual circumstances are due to a specific facet of the British education system. There is no separation of church and state in the U.K.; the 1998 School Standards and Equalities Act actually dictates that all primary schools must partake in a daily act of “collective worship” that is “mainly or broadly of a Christian character”—unless another faith is specified. Thus, every primary school in the U.K. has some sort of collective, religious element attached to its daily proceedings.

King David is a “voluntary-aided maintained school,” explains Head Teacher Steve Langford: “It gets the vast majority of its budget from local government, covering salaries, utilities, consumables such as pencils and pens, etc.” Voluntary-aided maintained schools are funded by the state and thus free to attend, but a foundation or trust contributes to building costs and has influence in the running of the school. In this case, it’s the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation.

“The budget is supported by the King David Religious Education Support school fund,” Langford added, “which pays for all the extras that make this school special.” This pays for the resources for festival celebrations, trips to synagogues and special Jewish events, as well as Jewish staff for things like the Limodei Kodesh class, or “holy studies” group. This provides slightly more in-depth education for Jewish pupils who will likely be learning at home or synagogue, too, and runs concurrently to Hebrew and Jewish education for their non-Jewish classmates.

For the Jewish students, a declaration of faith will secure them priority admission; faith schools are permitted by law to grant this to children who subscribe to the faith or denomination associated with the school. “Here, if you want to send a kid to a Jewish school, all you have to do is show you have a mezuzah on your door,” said Skinazi, who was surprised by the ease of access.

But not all Jewish parents take advantage of this; wealthier families often opt to send their children to fee-paying private schools. Importantly though, even if they all did choose King David, there still wouldn’t be enough Jewish children in the city to take up even half of the places. The remaining ones are mostly taken up by children who live in the local catchment area, which is the case with every school funded by the state.

During term, festivals like Hanukkah and Purim are celebrated enthusiastically, as are annual visits of groups of former Israeli soldiers on Yom HaZikaron. Alongside sports clubs and music lessons, there are weekly Israeli dance classes, which children of all faiths attend. “It is made clear at the school open days that we celebrate Israel here, including Yom Ha’Atzmaut—Israel’s birthday, as we know it—waving flags and having birthday cake,” explained Langford, who said the school’s position on Israel has never been questioned, and further, that a parent has never asked to have their child excused from activities. “We try not to draw attention to the political situation,” he added.

Unfortunately, as in many other U.K. cities, anti-Semitism exists in Birmingham. The Community Security Trust reported that in 2019, anti-Semitic incidents in Birmingham and its surrounding area rose to 29, a more than twofold increase from 2018. However, such incidents, as well as other forms of bigotry, are rarer at King David than at an average U.K. school. “Religious tolerance is a major part of it. It comes from Judaism,” explained Jacobs. “Our ethos in the school allows us to warmly welcome members of other faiths, or no faith at all.”

It seems to have a profound effect on those that attend. Aly-Raza Ismail, an ex-pupil from Birmingham’s Muslim community, revealed that the school allowed him to “gain a thorough understanding and respect of both religions’ teachings, from similarities between Arabic and Ivrit to the differences between Eid and Hanukkah,” adding that “it was a unique experience for me.”

Zain Qayum, who graduated in 2008, said the emphasis the school puts on recognizing what Muslims and Jews have in common “brings people together,” as did Rafia Begum, who recalled that the school “shapes and influences you into an individual who is more open-minded.”

Stereotypes and misconceptions, too often used to pit groups like Muslims and Jews against each other, aren’t given space to form. “At such a young age, none of it matters,” remarked Jordan, an ex-pupil who grew up in a Christian household; Christian children make up around 8% of the student body. His family enjoyed the experience so much that they’ve even adopted some Jewish traditions. “As long as I can remember, we’ve had Shabbat on a Friday night … it’s a wonderful part of my life.”

The broad church approach attracts a diverse range of Jews, too. “My main source of Jewish education came from King David,” said former student Ilana Davis, now a criminal barrister, who described the school as a “blueprint for tolerance.” Another Jewish ex-pupil commented that they felt “privileged” to have attended a Jewish school that was so multicultural.

Crucially, King David supports community regeneration. “If we can sustain a Jewish school,” said Margaret Jacobi, rabbi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, “I think that says a lot about the Jewish community in Birmingham.”

Aaron Drapkin is a freelance writer and journalist.

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