JFS – the Jewish Free School, is in trouble. The head has resigned and Sir Michael Wilshaw, former Chief Inspector of Ofsted, has taken over as Interim Executive Principal.
JFS has educated Jews since it was the Great Synagogue’s Talmud Torah in 1732. Which makes it somewhat older than Ampleforth (1802), Wellington (1837), Roedean (1885), Radley (1897) and Henrietta Barnett (1912).
The house colours of JFS are Blue and Yellow, which reflects the support they have had during their existence from the Rothschilds.It’s their house colours. The family put in upwards of £20,000 a year to keep it going in Victorian times, which would be around £200,000 today.
There were two reasons for building up the school. The first was the efforts of new Christian conversion societies in the early 19th century to start schools and attract Jewish children who they could then try to convert. As an incentive, such children would be given a meal at lunchtime and a free set of clothes.
The second reason was to take poor Jewish children and teach them how to earn a living when they grew up. The wealthier Jews preferred a Public school education for their children, even though their religious education would be totally ignored by the school, they would have to attend chapel, could not have time off for the festivals or Shabbot and suffered a good deal of antisemitism from their non-Jewish fellow-pupils. They were also usually on a strict quota. Dr. Arnold at Rugby was only one of the antisemitic headmasters.
JFS trained a considerable number of the British Synagogue ministers, who got their Talmudic training from Jews’ College. Becoming a minister was not a well paid profession for many years and the community was fortunate that many excellent men were prepared to devote their lives to ministering to congregations, who often treated them as second class citizens.
The foremost headmaster at JFS was Moses Angel who guided the school for a large part of the 19th century. Among the 19th century pupils who became household names were Barney Barnato, Selig Brodetsky and Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labour.
It wasn’t easy for anybody. There was a good deal of truancy, but many children from poor families were needed to work for a pittance to help keep the family fed.
The list of distinguished alumni could be extended a long way, as by 1900 JFS was the largest school in the country, with over 4,000 pupils.
It has a splendid campus in Kenton today and its academic results are among the highest in the country. The problem of adequate pastoral care, however, has allegedly contributed to some tragic results.
It shows the importance that the school commands in the world of school education that Sir Michael Wilshaw has accepted the task of sorting out the probems.
I have to declare an interest. My sons all went to Hasmonean, where the founder, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld ruled with a rod of iron and drove the local council mad by ignoring many of their regulations. Let’s hope that both schools flourish in the future.