If you stop and ask any member of the Jewish community what is most important to them as Jews, the chances are that they will say it is that their children have the opportunity to be informed Jews and one day opt to build a Jewish family of their own.
This is true for Jews of all persuasion. Jewish continuity is the number one issue, and the number one threat for Jews around the world, no less for the Jews of Perth, Western Australia.
Of all the facilities and opportunities for Jewish expression in Perth, there is one organisation that stands tall, as the Perth Jewish communities most important and most dynamic institution. Carmel School is owned and operated by the community, for the community. It is a unifying organisation, bringing together Jewish children from diverse homes. Jewish children from across different places of birth, different socio-economic standing, different Shule affiliations and different levels of religious observance join together and develop a healthy and tolerant mutual respect for one another.
The academic results of Carmel are outstanding. The facilities are state of the art. The teachers are dedicated. The culture is accommodating, the students are on the whole diligent and well balanced. In short, Carmel School has the best product it can possibly provide. In particular if you contrast what Carmel School has available now to where it was ten years ago, it is very evident to see that the progress has been consistent in each and every area. The most recent initiative of Shorashim – a Year Ten program to take every student to Israel, is one further example of how the school has developed its modern orthodox ethos. The level of Jewish literacy of all graduates has also markedly improved in recent years.
Last week Carmel School hosted an open day for families considering sending students to high school. It was not well attended, but those who did take the time to see the presentation could only be impressed by what they saw. The academic program, social support and Jewish culture were displayed with great pride. A panel of parents and former students, including a former student who is now a trainee teacher at the school, spoke passionately about why Carmel School was important to them, and how their families benefit from a Carmel education.
The problem that Carmel School has is not that an inability meet parent expectations. The problem is that there are sections of our community that do not support the school. The number of students at Carmel high school are approximately 150 students. The sad reality is that there are probably about the same number of Jewish students in private non-Jewish schools around Perth.
One of the most common reasons offered for not sending Jewish students to the Jewish school is that Carmel School is insular. Another is that social and business connections need to be fostered within the broader community to advantage the student in future years through commercial networks. A further reason is that students at Carmel may become “too Jewish” and risk dividing a family through the desire to be more religiously observant. Other reasons are offered. However in this scenario cost is not an issue, as the school fees involved are either commensurate or higher than the Carmel School option.
There are many arguments against the above viewpoints. Firstly, there is extensive interaction between Carmel students and students from other schools through a range of academic and extra curricular activities. The Jewish students even get to share their heritage in an environment of cultural exchange with other schools. Secondly, the Jewish community has its own so called “business networks”, equally as effective, if not more so than the comparable connections built within other faith based private schools. Irrespective of this, good business people develop connections of their own, and don’t rely on the “protectsia” of the prestigious private schools of old. It is worth little at university, and in the modern business market the fraternity brings even less of a free ride towards a prescribed career path, within any given profession.
As far as Jewish identity is concerned, not every Jewish child leaves Carmel School as a religious yeshiva bocher, nor should they. The school is not geared towards this. It is incumbent on each student to explore their own relationship with Judaism, on their own level, and Carmel School at least creates the environment for an informed decision. What is not often understood is that sitting in Shule is not the Jewish equivalent of sitting in Mass. The connection of a Jewish student to Judaism comes from the learning environment of intellectual enquiry, and the experience of Jewish celebration. All Jewish children deserve this chance.
By not sending a Jewish teenager to Carmel School, the impact is twofold. Firstly, the child and the family of the child lose out. They lose the best opportunity they have to reinforce the Jewish values, and inspire the knowledge and confidence that a Jewish child needs to take beyond adolesence. They lose the sense of identity, the connection to the community, and the best chance they have of building a robust Jewish future. Secondly, the community loses out. The economic viability of the school is severly constrained by the loss of each and every student. The overheads associated with running a school for more than 500 children amount to millions of dollars. The addition of even five or ten students, let alone a hundred or more, would have a profound impact on the financial capacity of the school to further grow and develop its services.
I do not believe it is an understatement to say that the future of the Perth Jewish community depends on the general and prevailing attitude that the community as a whole has towards its day school. If it is an acceptable and popular social culture to remove Jewish primary school graduates from Carmel School and assimilate them into elite private schools (that deliver a religious tuition that contradicts their Jewish upbringing), then our community has a big problem. If there is a unfavouable stigma associated with this action, then it sends a powerful message about what a families obligation to their own Jewish community is.
I have no shame in joining the chorus of those who are prejudiced and biased in favour of Carmel School. I am as much prejudiced and biased towards the school as those who exercise their prejudiced and biased views against the school. At the end of the day, each of us votes with our feet. A number of families make tremendous financial and lifestyle sacrificies to extend their children a Jewish education. I do not have a problem with families who opt for a lower cost public education alternative due to their economic situation, but I do have a problem with families who opt for a higher cost private education alternative that deprives their children of a Jewish education. It is a rejection of their heritage, a snub to their community, and it has a real detrimental flow on effect that can lead to the loss of a local Jewish population in generations to come.
Many families at Carmel School will attest to choosing Perth as a migration destination due to the presence of Carmel School and the opportunities it provides. This migration pattern seems to come in occasional waves and bursts, but nonetheless will continue so long as the school is stong and maintains its vitality. Each eligible child that is not part of this is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is missing. But as important, each missing child is a potential financial contributor to the growth and development of the school and its reputation. Each and every graduate of Carmel School is an ambassador, an advocate, and a benefactor who helps to place the school and the Perth Jewish community on the map.
If you are a parent who either has a Jewish child at another private school, or is considering this direction, I urge you to take the time to visit Carmel School, find out what the school can provide, and objectively evaluate what your own community has available to you. I cannot give you a Jewish guilt trip, but either you can ask your mother to, or even question yourself about what Jewish values and identity you wish to impart to your children. And your grandchildren.