‘Not a safe space’: Prestigious Jewish schools in London are shaken by allegations of sexual abuse
LONDON (JTA) — Two of London’s most prestigious Jewish schools are in turmoil after they were implicated on a website for Brits to share their stories of sexual abuse.
The website, Everyone’s Invited, launched in March after the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard launched a national conversation about the safety of women. Among the tens of thousands of testimonies shared on the site already are dozens that name Jewish schools as either the location of an alleged assault or the school that students attended when the alleged events took place.
These allegations, which include rape, assault and harassment, make grim reading for Britain’s two most prestigious and largest Jewish schools: JFS and the Jewish Community Secondary School, both in North London.
JFS, formerly known as the Jewish Free School, is named in 18 testimonies, with one saying that sexual assault was “completely normalized” at the school.
“I was in the lunch queue and he put his hand up my skirt and groped me. … No one said anything,” one account says.
It was “normal for boys of any age to grope girls,” another account about JFS says. “To know they felt a power over these young girls (and myself) is something that I don’t like to even remotely think, let alone talk about.”
The Jewish Community Secondary School is named in 14 alleged incidents, including one implicating a teacher. Other prestigious Jewish schools, such as London’s Hasmonean, also were implicated, as were non-Jewish schools with high proportions of Jewish students, such as Haberdasher’s, the London school whose graduates include Sacha Baron Cohen.
Patrick Moriarty, the head of Jewish Community Secondary School, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the school was “fully aware of these testimonies” and that it was treating them with “utmost seriousness.”
“All identifiable incidents have been thoroughly investigated with input from the statutory authorities and action taken on their advice,” said Moriarty, who has written that learning about the allegations sent him on a “trip into darkness.”
“Their shame, petrifying and mortifying as it always is, falls on us all,” he wrote in a column earlier this month on a website for British educators. “Whatever other responses may rant and rage within us – and they will – that collective shame needs to be tasted in all its rank bitterness: truly, everyone’s indicted.”
Former students of the schools told JTA that the online allegations corresponded with their experiences.
Eden Zamora, 20, spent six years at the Jewish Community Secondary School. Three years after graduating, Zamora holds no nostalgia for the school.
“What I remember most,” Zamora said, “is once bending over to pick something up and a boy came up behind me and began grinding against me.” Others stood by without saying anything. Afterward, one student came up and observed, matter of factly, “I think he likes you.”
Other graduates recalled being groped, having sexually explicit photos of girls shared with hundreds of students, and public discussion and comparison of female students’ bodies with those of porn stars. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid potential criticism by their former classmates.
One current Jewish Community Secondary School student related a recent occurrence there that a male student broke into a girls bathroom and began shouting, “Tell me your name, tell me your name, come out now” as he threatened to open a stall that a girl was in.
“She was scared,” the graduate said. “These are big issues.”
A 2016 JFS graduate, now 23, said she attributed some of the incidents to inadequate instruction about sexual education and consent.
“I think it stems from the fact that there’s no sexual education and there is no discussion of these issues,” she said, adding, “I think that education from the very start about what is and what is not OK – as basic as that sounds – and what is consent, needs to be had.”
At the Jewish Community Secondary School, Zamora recalled, girls attended assemblies that they said focused “on how to not get raped,” but did not remember any special assemblies being held for male students.
Zamora’s alma mater is planning to make changes. In an email sent to parents last week, the Jewish Community Secondary School said it was engaging in a review of its curriculum to ensure that “content, emphasis and delivery was as effective as it could be, especially in relation to consent.” The message also noted that past complaints were being reviewed again, and the school would hold “assemblies to address issues of behaviour, respect, kindness, and being an ally not a bystander.”
JFS did not respond to repeated attempts for comment, saying only that school authorities would “choose whether they wish to respond to these allegations.” Teachers there declined to speak with JTA, citing rules preventing them from speaking to the media.
“I could lose my job,” one said.
This is not the first time over the past year that serious sexual assault allegations have emerged within Jewish settings. Police Scotland opened a criminal investigation in July into dozens of allegations of sexual assault, including nine of rape, against members of the St. Andrews University branch of the American fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.
Jewish Women’s Aid, an organization that supports women who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence, said that following the appearance of allegations on Everyone’s Invited, it had been contacted by “several schools and others across the community who are very concerned.”
JWA said that it had written to “all mainstream Jewish schools on 17 March to restate our offer to run education sessions” and had contacted the Partnership for Jewish Schools, a division of the Jewish Leadership Council, to offer support to school leadership teams.
“We are happy to share this expertise and hope to be able to support school communities in developing healthier cultures,” said Naomi Dickson, the group’s CEO.
Jewish schools represent only a minority of the accounts posted on Everyone’s Invited, which is associated with a broader anti-rape movement that has swelled in the wake of Everard’s shocking murder. But several recent graduates of the schools said they worried that fears of antisemitism might hold back aggressive responses to sexual assault in Jewish schools in particular.
“With the Jewish community,” one former student said, “we are scared to admit that there are problems because of how it is going to be perceived on the outside, but it is actually just creating more profound issues.”