Jewish college in drive for recruits

February 12, 1999

The London College of Jewish Studies is abandoning full-time degree courses for school-leavers in favour of a radical lifelong learning agenda that will open doors to older people with no formal academic qualifications.

The college, formerly known as Jews' College, is an associate institution of the University of London and awards its degrees.

It has launched the first ever part-time BA in Jewish studies. This replaces the full-time BA (Hons) Jewish studies, which has failed to attract students in sufficient numbers in recent years.

It is a sea-change for the college, which, since its foundation in 1855, has provided a highly specialised education for young people interested in the academic study of Judaism.

The college excelled at rabbinical training in particular and, although it is strictly orthodox, was never a centre for Judaic evangelism.

Ringing the changes is the college's director, David-Hillel Ruben. Technically still on secondment from the London School of Economics, Professor Ruben was brought in by Chief Rabbi Johnathan Sacks and the college council to give new academic direction and impetus to the college, which was in the doldrums and suffering financially as a result.

"I think the college had been undermanaged both professionally and in terms of the lay leadership. Because of this no one had thought out a clear mission statement over the past decades," said Professor Ruben. "No one had sat down and asked the basic question about how to resource the institution properly and whether there could be any state funding."

The school receives no public funding. Student fees are charged but the majority of the money is provided by private benefactors. The school is answerable to the chief rabbi in matters of Jewish law and to the university in issues of academic standards.

When another financial crisis hit two years ago the chief rabbi organised a college bail-out. But more permanent solutions were needed and the college was ordered to carry out a root-and-branch review of its mission.

An academic working party was set up and its report submitted to a college review committee. Its thrust was widening participation and the move to wider community provision. Professor Ruben said: "We were targeting 18-year-olds and not higher education for the community at large. We now want to work to the model of Birkbeck or the Open University."

Such a radical re-orientation may well be founded in changes in the wider community. Despite reports of Jewish communities in decline as younger Jews marry out of the faith, Professor Ruben insists that there has been a counter-movement.

Precisely because society is increasingly fractured, Jewish people, he says, are looking at ways to rekindle a sense of belonging far away from their family and neighbourhood friends.

Another factor may be a youthful reaction against the liberalisation of older generations. Parents and grandparents of many of today's under-forties were immigrants and likely to have had little time for strict religious observance at a time when they were trying to rebuild lives shattered by persecution and the Holocaust.

Professor Ruben believes that the under-40s, and their seniors, are now keen to rediscover Jewish culture, history and religion.

"From our point of view we are an educational establishment. We are seeing a large number of secularly educated Jews and Jewesses who are interested in a Jewish education at the university level. We want to bring a form of orthodoxy that they will understand in terms of that secular university experience," said Professor Ruben.

One of the aims is to open access to those with no degree and perhaps no formal qualifications of any sort. Professor Ruben is alive to possible accusations of "dumbing down" but is confident that quality and standards will be maintained. He said: "Dumbing down is the $64,000 question of higher education at the moment. But I believe it is possible to open up education without dumbing down in an unacceptable way.

"There is a big difference between a student's entry level and exit level. The assurance here is that the exit level is as good as anywhere else in the University of London. Our courses have to meet the same rigorous assessments."

There certainly seems to be no question about the college's academic integrity. In addition to its 30-odd BA students it teaches, about a dozen MA students and more than 20 London University students who take options in Jewish studies. Rabbinical teaching has dwindled as most now train to be rabbis in Israel, where immersion in Hebrew is easier.

The new BA is structured over five years, although appropriate prior learning will be credited leading to a shorter degree. Tuition will be provided in the evening and at weekends to meet the needs of the adult learners. Numbers are expected to rise and eventually other programmes may be offered.

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