Book offers lessons in tolerance from Perse history
A book chronicling the history of ‘Hillel House’, a pioneering Jewish boarding house at The Perse, was launched yesterday with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the School. The launch was attended by several Old Hillelians and Ed Kessler, Director of the Woolf Institute, an organisation dedicated to the study of relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Hillel House was home to more than 400 boys in its 40 year history. It was one of only four Jewish boarding houses ever to have existed at independent schools in Britain. The house was established in 1904 – against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism – to promote acceptance of all faiths.
Unveiling the plaque Head Ed Elliott explained: “Hillel House was a shining example of enlightened tolerance way ahead of its time. At a time when most independent schools closed their doors to Jewish children, The Perse welcomed them to its community. I am grateful to Derek for preserving in print this important chapter in our history.”
Most independent schools in the early 20th Century restricted the admission of Jewish children to a small quota, required them to attend chapel and did not allow them time off for festivals or provide facilities to avoid non-kosher food. At Hillel House, Jews were free to follow their religion.
Author Derek Taylor studied at The Perse and stayed at the boarding house from 1943 to 1948, having been unable to remain with his parents who were living in a hotel during the Blitz. He noted: “A recent international study listed Britain as one of the most tolerant countries in the world. That doesn’t happen by accident. It is to leaders like Dr Rouse that we owe our proud status, and the book is overdue recognition of the debt we owe to one of those exceptional individuals. I was always treated kindly at The Perse. My group of friends was both Christian and Jewish, but the subject of religion did not really come up in school life. I have never had any difficulty in being 100 per cent British and 100 per cent Jewish and am just as much at home in synagogue or at Queens Park Rangers!”
Hillel House was set up by visionary Headmaster WHD Rouse, whose early experience as the son of missionaries in Calcutta taught him the value of religious tolerance, and Maths Master, Israel Hersch. It occupied the building on Glebe Road which today houses the Perse Pelican Nursery and Pre-Prep. The House had five dormitories, a homework room, a library and a dining hall. Outside was a sizeable field for play and outdoor activities, also used for the traditional outdoor meal of the autumn harvest festival of Sukkot. The Old Hillelians returned to the House after the launch of the book to share memories and see its present day use.
Ed Kessler remarked: “The establishment of Hillel House one hundred and ten years ago shows just how ahead of the curve The Perse was, and what can be achieved with vision. The lessons of Hillel House are just as relevant today, when opportunities for dialogue and interaction between people of different faiths remain crucial to understanding and acceptance.”
One notable Old Hillelian is Josef Behrmann, who boarded there in the late 1930s. He was captured by the Nazis on returning home to Latvia in 1939 and survived fourteen concentration camps to testify at the Nuremberg trials. He later became a celebrated actor with a career of 100 films. There is an annual lecture at The Perse to remember him.
The book is full of memories of life at the boarding house, from family-style Friday nights with white tablecloths, candles, special food and Kiddush (grace), to Sunday afternoon tea with Jewish students of the University. It is available from The Perse School priced at £15; ring 01223 403808 or email PerseADO@perse.co.uk