Faith schools are often perceived as restricting students’ autonomy through inculcating a single religious ideology and compelling participation in collective worship. Based on interviews and focus groups with parents, students and senior staff, this article investigates how England’s one pluralist Jewish secondary school has, in contrast, attempted to accommodate various forms of Jewish practice and facilitate students’ agency to determine their Jewish identities as desired. It reveals that students enjoy opportunities to actively negotiate Judaism, but that their autonomy is not without limits, and issues inherent to pluralism exist in executing an ethos accommodative of diverse, personalized expressions of Jewishness.
Critics of faith schools regularly argue that these institutions restrict students’ autonomy by compelling them to adhere to particular religious practices and behaviors. However, as this article has demonstrated, some faith schools may actively promote the concept of autonomy and encourage students to find personal meaning in faith, rather than resorting to singular ideologies and notions of appropriate religious practice. Through its analysis of the ways in which diverse conceptualizations of Jewishness are accommodated at England’s only pluralist Jewish secondary school, JCoSS, this article has revealed how a pluralist ethos can act to both enable and constrain individual autonomy. Parents and students favored JCoSS’ provision of a range of religious services and its distinctive approach to Jewish education, which encourages students to actively question and negotiate their relationship with Judaism, rather than imposing a dominant conceptualization of ‘Jewishness,’ as deemed to occur in other Jewish schools. By catering in this way, JCoSS was viewed as a highly inclusive faith school environment, reinforcing its popularity amongst Jewish parents who would be unlikely to send their children to more stringent Orthodox Jewish schools.
However, student autonomy was not unlimited. Some parents would constrain their children’s agency to define their participation in services, instead obligating them to adhere to their own notions of appropriate Jewish practice, especially where they perceived that the school’s affordance of student choice was excessive. Furthermore, a dominant ‘Progressive’ school culture was widely deemed to exist that discouraged students from participating in certain activities, lest they be perceived as operating outside of accepted boundaries of practice (or non-practice). The school’s policies toward Kashrut and chagim were also considered restrictive to personal expression amongst those who would not conventionally adhere to these traditional components of the Jewish faith. As such, the school’s pluralism engendered antithetical impulses: a concern that the school offers students too much autonomy (especially amongst those with a more concrete idea of how a Jewish identity should be practiced), and a concern that the school, as a by-product of its principled inclusiveness, cannot give students enough. The boundaries of acceptability differ for every individual, contingent on how extensively each’s preferred form of identification and practice (or indeed freedom from practice) is accommodated. In these ways, JCoSS’ very pluralism is subject to an inherent dilemma between inclusivity (of different expressions of Jewishness) and autonomy (as regards students’ freedom to express their Jewishness as desired). Intriguingly too, given the continued resistance to pluralist Judaism amongst members of the Orthodox community, it can be posited that JCoSS’ strict policies toward Kashrut and chagim are aimed at embracing those who do not in fact want to be included.