Outside the gates of Machzikei Hadass school in Stamford Hill, the heart of London’s orthodox Jewish community, a steady stream of cars arrives as children file out. This could be the school run at any primary in the country but for one difference: all the drivers collecting pupils are men.
The Hasidic Jewish school is run in the Ultra-Orthodox Belz tradition and it was the source of a nationwide controversy after making what is thought to be the first formal attempt to ban women from driving in Britain.
Parents with children here – and at its sister school, Beis Malka – received a letter last week demanding that mothers cease to drive to its gates or risk having their offspring expelled. The letter, which was signed by leaders from Belz schools and endorsed by the group’s rabbis, said that having female drivers went against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp.”
The letter said that there had been an increase in “mothers of pupils who have started to drive,” leading to “great resentment amongst parents”. It added that children would be banned from their schools from August if their mothers drove them there.
Sam Moss, 29, is part of the Belz community and has two sons at the boys’ school and a daughter at the girls’ school. “[The rule] was never official before, but more and more women are starting to get a license. My wife wouldn’t drive, especially when the school is trying to keep it under control. She never took her test; she doesn’t want to drive.”
He added: “There are lots of schools in Stamford Hill. If a woman wants to drive they can send their kids to a different school.” He struggles to explain the religious reasons behind the ban. “I don’t know how to explain the reasons. I’m not sure but most Hasidic women don’t drive,” he said.
One 35-year-old mother of seven, who was walking to pick up her son from Machzikei Hadass school, said: “I don’t drive. It’s a modesty thing; my mother never drove either. The men drive and the ladies don’t, that’s just the way it is.”
Like its sister school, this boy’s primary has been rated “Good” by Ofsted. Inspectors noted that there was a “very effective British values policy, and display throughout the school demonstrates the high priority that the school puts into this important area.”
Dina Brawer, UK Ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said of the policy: “It’s baffling. As an Orthodox practicing Jew, I don’t see how it’s rooted in any of our traditions or values. What I think happens in the Ultra-Orthodox movements is they seek to create a dichotomy between Judaism and the modern world.”
Ms Brawer, who is currently a rabbinical student, added: “I think it’s really about patriarchal control over women… I think it’s as extreme as Saudi Arabia’s position [where women are banned from driving].”
The school would not comment, but pointed to a statement from the directors of Neshei Belz – Organization of the Women of the Belz community in London – which said: “As Orthodox Jewish women belonging to the Belz community in London, we feel extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”