Women in a Jewish sect in north London have been told not to drive or face having their children barred from school. They are were told that driving would offend “traditional rules of modesty”.
In a letter – seen by Channel 4 News – members of the British Belz Hasidic sect in Stamford Hill were told by religious leaders that any children driven by their mothers should be turned away from school from June this year onwards.
The letter, originally in Hebrew, said that a growing number of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.
It read: “In particular, there is great consternation and resentment amongst our students studying in the holy establishments against this practice. A woman driving a vehicle cannot send her children for education within the Belz institutions.
“Therefore, we are to inform you that as of the beginning of June 2015, it will not be possible for a student to study within our establishment if his/her mother drives a car.
“Any mother who must drive due to a special reason (such as a medical condition) must forward a request to a special committee and that committee will consider her request.”
After the reports first surfaced in the Jewish Chronicle, the Board of Deputies of British Jews distanced itself from the advice, saying that the “vast majority of the Jewish community has never had any problem with anyone driving”.
A spokesman said: “This is an ultra-Orthodox sect and they have weird rules on what they think women should be doing. It’s not a mainstream Jewish thing. It seems to be a marginal group. Across the strictly orthodox community, women drive as much as anyone else does and no one has ever questioned it.”
Dina Brawer, the UK Ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said that the directive had no basis in Jewish teachings. “It is a perversion of Jewish law and values. There is no foundation for banning women from driving within Jewish sources, it is not reflecting the tradition.
“What these ultra-Orthodox movements sometimes do is create a dichotomy between what a person of faith and part of the modern world; it is a false dichotomy.
“Rabbis have always been pragmatic and have adapted to the changing world they are living in, while upholding our values. They are trying to react against change and modern society.”
But, in a statement released on their behalf after the letter came to light, the women of the sect said they felt that driving a car was a “high-pressured activity”.
The statement read: “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.
“We do, however, understand that there are many who conduct lifestyles that are different to ours, and we do not, in any way, disrespect them or the decisions they make.”
Neither of the schools associated with the sect responded to requests from Channel 4 News to clarify their policies.
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said it was looking into allegations that the independent school standards have been breached after receiving a series of reports on Thursday. The department was not able to say how many schools were being looked at as part of the investigation, which is at an early stage, but it is understood that both of the Belz institutions are included.
The spokesman said: “If schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards. Where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”