The Only Jew in the Village

Growing up Jewish at a non-Jewish state school

“Jewish or Private?” This was one of the first questions my mother was asked a few months before I entered secondary school. “Neither, she’s going to the local mixed comprehensive.” My mum replies. A look of shock, confusion and mild horror falls over the inquirer’s face, trying to work out just how such a decision was made.

In my first year, we were asked interview a Jewish person about their religion in Religious Studies. Once the word spread that I was Jewish, I had an influx of questions fly my way and soon realised I had nobody around me to interview but my mum. Whilst lining up to get my lunch, a girl approached me and asked without a second thought “Are you the Jewish one?”. Coincidentally, this girl later became one of my closest friends. However, that question made me realise for the first time that by going to this school I could help to break people’s preconceptions of Jews. Most of the kids had never met somebody Jewish, so the notion that my father didn’t wear a big black hat and my mother didn’t wear long skirts and a wig was absurd to them. They simply didn’t realise that it was possible to be Jewish and not “look it” (whatever that may mean). These generalised views didn’t just come from the students, as last year, when they found out my religion, a teacher asked me, “Oh you’re Jewish? So, are you really wealthy then?”  I was so taken aback that I couldn’t even find the words to defend myself, simply replying “no” and moving away, dismayed both by the comment and my lack of response.

But how do these misconceptions arise? In my experience, people simply don’t know about what they are not exposed to, and with the increase of Jewish children attending Jewish or private schools, this exposure is severely lacking. In fact, since the 2014/15 academic year, there has been a 12% increase in the number of children attending Jewish schools in the UK.

Why has this become the norm for Jewish children? Following in their parents/ sibling’s footsteps? Strong religious identity? Or perhaps the rising fear of antisemitism. While this is completely justified, with there being a record high of 1,805 anti-Semitic incidents in the UK in 2019, secluding oneself within their community will not help change this. While I have experienced the odd Jewish “joke” or anti-Semitic comment at school, I know these come simply from ignorance and ill-informed views and have almost always contradicted them. However, I have heard equally as offensive and severe jokes about other religions and races, both at my school and from Jews themselves. It seems to me that the disadvantages of non-inclusive education go both ways, as each side becomes as misinformed as the other.

Despite what one may believe, I think going to a non-Jewish school has made my Jewish identity far stronger than it may have been otherwise. It has made me unique amongst me peers and has induced me to participate in Jewish extra-curricular outside of school, such as going on summer camps and training to lead within a Jewish Youth movement. While the comments and jokes about being Jewish will probably never stop throughout my life, I hope to continue to break misconceptions and stereotypes about my culture, even if it means changing just one person’s view.

– Anna Lawrence-Wasserberg, Madatz