Wonder college fought for its life... and lost

I HAVE a childhood memory of a meeting in our London home at this time of the year, at the end of the month of Sivan, 70 years ago.

My father, Kopul Rosen, was preparing to open his brave experiment in Jewish education — Carmel College.

He had established a charitable foundation that bought the estate of Greenham Common, outside Newbury. During the war it had been General Eisenhower’s headquarters.

My father was the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. But he was feeling frustrated by the politics and formality of the rabbinate.

His first love was education. He wanted to create a residential school that offered a rigorous secular academic education, as well as a Jewish one. Athens and Jerusalem. Its graduates would go to Oxford and Cambridge and study in famous yeshivas in Israel.

The residential boarding school was modelled on the great English public (private) high schools that dated back 500 years and were examples of a rigorous classical education.

There were a few Jewish houses at several public schools that provided limited accommodation for Jewish practice. But in the opinion of my father, they created little ghettos within the wider community.

His concern was that where a Jewish child felt set apart, inferior in some way, this would damage his sense of Jewish identity and leave him feeling that Judaism was secondary.

A Jewish child needed the security of a supportive environment, whether at home or at school, for the confidence to go out into the world as a proud Jew. If homes could not, at least schools might.

Anglo-Jewry — indeed most of Western European and American Jewry in the 20th century — was dramatically collapsing.

There were, it is true, isolated pockets of religious resistance. But, in general, the urge to succeed, the attractions of assimilation, the sense of being under constant assault either ideologically or literally, had created a palpable sense of insecurity in Jewish life. A need to hide or disguise, rather than to stand proud.

And the rise of the Marxist and socialist movements also undermined religious identity.

At that time, there was hardly any full-time Jewish education altogether in Britain. No sign yet of the explosion of state-supported Jewish day schools that emerged under the Conservative Party in the late 70s and 80s.

Carmel College was designed to address this general issue of Jewish education being seen as regressive, narrow-minded and a barrier to success in society.

But as a boarding school, it was also an attempt to compete with the public schools. To offer to young Jews a sense of being the majority, where they could represent their school in sports and intellectual competitions and keep Shabbat and festivals, if they wanted to.

To be the core of the school and its society, rather than the periphery. To be proud Jews as well as proud citizens.

Kopul Rosen was a magnetic, charismatic personality. He had stature and good looks. He was a brilliant orator. He was completely at home in secular culture, music, sport and art.

His Talmudic training in Mir, the great yeshiva of Lithuania, gave him the pride to stand tall, fearless of antisemitism and religious zealotry.

He was also a passionate Zionist. He had fought for Zionism in the public arena so that the school he created was one that saw Israel as essential for Jewish survival and growth.

Carmel College opened its doors in September, 1948, with only 24 pupils. It grew and took over the nearby Thatcham House as a junior school.

But when the American Air Force returned to Greenham Common, it had to move. In 1953 it bought an estate outside Wallingford on the banks of the Thames. It grew and attained academic and sporting success way beyond its numbers.

If the secular side flourished, the Jewish studies were not so successful. Carmel ran according to orthodoxy, but most pupils came from non-observant Jewish backgrounds. For them and their parents, the secular studies were more important to their future lives.

The religious side was an optional extra. It mattered less than the social benefit of a Jewish community. In addition, finding good Jewish studies teachers with professional qualifications was difficult.

The one thing that compensated was the presence of Kopul Rosen over Shabbat and festivals. His passion for singing and for teaching Torah suffused the atmosphere of the school and gave the students a taste of the Jewish experience over and above the information.

It was this, together with support from a handful of other Orthodox teachers, that remained with the pupils more than anything Jewish they were taught at the school.

For most of the week Kopul Rosen was absent, raising money to keep Carmel afloat.

It was a very expensive operation — 100 acres of grounds bordering the River Thames and buildings for accommodation, teaching, laboratories and sports. It had an exceptional teacher-pupil ratio, and teachers were paid above the norm.

There were maintenance, cleaning, grounds, laundry, and medical staffs. And, of course, kosher catering was expensive.

Anglo-Jewry was always reluctant to support Carmel. Some agued it confined Jews to too narrow a world that would inhibit integration. On the other hand, Carmel had a much wider range of pupils of different backgrounds and from around the world than most other schools did.

Its graduates went on to international universities and companies and had little trouble getting on with their peers, without needing to confine themselves to exclusively Jewish company.

Carmel was always fiercely independent. It was not part of any denomination. Too Orthodox for the left wing of the community and too modern for the right. Communal causes and Israel appealed more to wealthy donors.

And although Carmel charged high fees, a large proportion of its students were on scholarships or reduced fees.

Carmel always faced the challenge of whether to only accept academically outstanding pupils or to widen the net for the sake of educational plurality. In the end, it was a mix.

For the first 14 years of the school, Carmel struggled from paycheque to paycheque. It was not until Kopul Rosen’s premature death in 1962 that sympathy money flowed in, and the school achieved, for a while, economic stability. The spirit of the school was astounding and exciting. Most graduates left with similar levels of religious observance to what they came in with. Some became more committed, others less.

For most, the comradeship was for a lifetime. Carmel produced rabbis and secularists, academics and professionals, businessmen and sportsmen, and a sprinkling of felons too.

A surprising proportion ended up in Israel. Most married into the faith. Some did not.

After Kopul Rosen’s death, Carmel grew, changed and brought in girls. Its numbers fluctuated, and it went through three headmasters before closing in 1997.

Jewish families in general had become reluctant to send children away from home. The school’s costs became prohibitive. And academic results began to level off.

So the supply of pupils and supporters reduced. In the end Carmel’s debts sank it. No one stepped up to the rescue.

I am not sad at Carmel’s disappearance. However much one may regret its closure, it was a noble experiment.

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