Samuel’s favourite Jewish festival is Pesach, or Passover, which commemorates the exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The 10-year-old enjoys taking part in the seder, or ritual feast, which marks the start of the holiday. “The food is nice, and we sing songs and tell stories,” he said.
This is unusual because Samuel comes from a Colombian Christian family. He and dozens of other non-Jewish children attend an orthodox Jewish school in north London, where he wears a kippah, learns Hebrew and says Jewish prayers day.
Against a backdrop of increasing antisemitism, with record numbers of hate incidents reported last year, the Simon Marks Jewish primary school in Stoke Newington is proud of its diversity and message of tolerance.
“If you teach non-Jewish children about the Jewish faith, they’re likely to have a positive attitude later in life,” headteacher Gulcan Metin-Asdoyuran – who is from a Turkish Muslim background – told the Observer.
The school, which is affiliated to the United Synagogue, a union of modern orthodox synagogues in the UK, is split almost equally between Jewish and non-Jewish pupils. Among the non-Jews are Christians, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and children of no faith. The teaching and support staff are equally diverse.
Alongside the national curriculum, the 117 pupils have two hours of Jewish studies each week. They learn about other faiths “through a Jewish lens”, said the head, who is known as Ms Metin. They recently visited a mosque; trips to a Buddhist temple and a Sikh gurdwara are planned. The school uniform includes kippot for boys and modest dress for girls; they eat kosher food; repeat Jewish blessings through the day; celebrate Jewish holidays; and finish early on Fridays ahead of Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.
The school also promotes positive messages about Israel. The Jewish National Fund, a charity that works for a “secure, prosperous future for the land and people of Israel”, supports the school through funding for computers so pupils can Skype with Israeli schoolchildren to improve their Hebrew and learn about life in Israel.
Samuel said learning Hebrew “helps us to understand other countries and cultures”. Five-year-old Ela, whose family are British Turkish Muslims, said Hebrew was “really fun”. Lori, nine, who has a Jewish-Christian background, said the best thing about the school was that “everyone is different”.
Metin moved to Simon Marks three years ago after a stint as head of a non-faith school. “I never thought I’d be appointed. I’ve always been interested in cultural diversity, but I knew very little about being Jewish, about Judaism,” she said. Now she is a “basic Hebrew speaker”.
She recruited a consultant rabbi-in-residence to advise her and other non-Jewish staff, and put in place a leadership team with “respect for all faiths”. The school had been struggling academically for some time, but in 2017 Ofsted rated it “good” and Metin hopes for recognition of further improvement in next year’s inspection.
Unlike ultra-orthodox Jewish schools, there is no gender segregation and staff respond openly to questions about different kinds of families. “We have children here with two mums or two dads. We follow the chief rabbi’s guidance,” said Metin. In 2018, Ephraim Mirvis said orthodox Jewish schools should support LGBT+ students and families, and have a a zero tolerance approach to homophobic and transphobic bullying.
Staff and parents have welcomed her appointment, but Metin said she struggled to create links with nearby ultra-orthodox Jewish schools and other bodies. “There was some resistance among the wider community; it’s been hard to build relationships. But the more we welcomed them in to have conversations with us, the more they reciprocated. But there is still work to do.”
We need to expose children to different viewpoints and beliefs to prepare them to become positive global citizens
Simon Marks has, however, strong links with an Islamic school opposite. The two schools marked Holocaust Memorial Day last month together. “We interact more with them than with independent [ultra-orthodox Jewish] schools,” said Metin.
One of her team is Syed Gilani, a practising Muslim, who faced questions from friends and family when he joined the staff four years ago. “We should celebrate diversity,” he said. “There are lots of values in common between Islam and Judaism. We need to expose children to different viewpoints and beliefs to prepare them to become positive global citizens.”
Necibe Ozturk, Ela’s mother, said the school had a powerful energy. Her daughter now sometimes prayed in Hebrew at home. “It’s good to pray –it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it. I’m learning through her. There are so many different ethnicities at the school, but it’s like a family and we all learn about each other.”
Like other Jewish schools, Simon Marks is surrounded by a tall fence, and security guards monitor comings and goings. Some parents had raised concerns about the word “Jewish” incorporated into the school logo printed on the uniform, fearing abuse, but Metin argued: “We need to be proud of who we are”. There have been no reported incidents of antisemitism.
“Lots of people still have stereotypes – they think all Muslim women wear hijabs and all Jewish men wear black coats and have curly sidelocks. Our work is to break that down,” she said.