About the Spiro Ark
Last updated: 2004-03-02
Spiro Ark is a London-based charitable organisation which organises Jewish cultural events and courses in Jewish History, culture and languages. It has been established by Nitza and Robin Spiro, well known for their pioneering work in Jewish Education in Britain.
Spiro Ark aims to teach and enthuse about Jewish History and Culture, both because of the intrinsic fascination of these subjects, and because of the central role of Jewish Education in maintaining a Jewish sense of identity in the 21st century.
THE STORY OF SPIRO ARK
When we look at Jewish education in this country today, the teaching of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, art, music, drama, the use of films, all these are accepted as legitimate and desirable elements in the teaching process.
But, twenty years ago when Nitza and Robin Spiro embarked upon their educational journey, these subjects as key tools to encourage Jewish identity were often overlooked. In fact, a number of organisations refused to include such subjects in their curriculum, actually questioning their validity.
Today the name Spiro both in this country and beyond represents success in Jewish education. This has been achieved through an innovative approach, imaginative ideas, cultural exploration and the courage to be self-critical and even to fail!
But how and why did Robin and Nitza Spiro do it?
Jewish Education and the Spiros
Robin can best be described as a mixture of the conventional and the unconventional. The war was spent in America, then back to England, Harrow School and the Cricket 1st XI, Oxford University and a Law degree, then a Chartered Accountancy qualification followed by a National Service Commission in the 8th Queen's Royal Irish Hussars - it could have been the background for a political career in the Tory party!
Now for the unconventional. Midstream in a successful business career Robin decided to return to Oxford, where he spent the next five years studying Jewish history for an M. Phil. Degree. Previously lacking a strong anchor in Jewish religious or communal life, notwithstanding a United Synagogue background, yet feeling the need to try and understand his Jewish identity before losing it, Robin now became addicted to Jewish history - and in a somewhat mystical way, his place in it. He also began to realise the tremendous potential for including the subjects of Jewish history and culture in Jewish education.
Robin had discovered that the miracle of Jewish history enabled the learner both to become a participant in the Jewish experience and to be provided with a number of new paths to Jewish identity, hitherto not even considered. And most important of all, he was convinced that this learning process could attract and affect the individual whether he or she was a committed Jew, a marginal Jew, a fractional Jew or even an interested non-Jew.
Thus it was that some twenty years ago, Robin, then the father of a large family and controlling a flourishing property business (his company had just completed the redevelopment of the St. Christopher's Place complex off London's Oxford Street) decided to change direction: to share his knowledge of Jewish history with others and especially those Jewish youth who were receiving a totally non-Jewish education.
Devoting time and effort, not to mention much of the family wealth to the project, Robin embarked on his 'mission' with a passion. Prior to setting up and running the Spiro Institute he had single-handedly obtained approval from the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board for an A/O level examination in modern Jewish history (1780-1980). Although he had never taught before, Robin was soon teaching the subject in a number of public schools (Eton, Harrow, University College School, City of London, South Hampstead) to all creeds and none, as an integral part of the school programme.
The examination results were excellent, statistically topping the U.K. averages, which encouraged more schools to include the subject in their curriculum.
Single-handedly too, he obtained the enthusiastic support of the Hebrew University which helped to train the first group of teachers. Many graduates of Robin Spiro's programmes have become leading Jewish history teachers and heads of Jewish organisations, both in the U.K. and abroad, influencing more than one generation of hitherto lapsed Jews, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi.
While all of this was going on, Nitza, who had taken the same M.Phil degree at Oxford, had been given a university lectureship in Hebrew and Hebrew literature. After a few years however Nitza decided to leave the 'ivory towers' of Oxford and join Robin in what was clearly becoming an exciting and groundbreaking venture.
To the new organisation Nitza brought her familiarity with effective methods of adult education. She also brought her love and skills in language and literature teaching to enable Jewish education to be opened up to an inter-disciplinary approach. But, above all, she brought her unique ability to inspire both teachers and students.
The combination of Nitza's and Robin's abilities, helped by an enthusiastic and ever-growing teacher cadre and student following, converted old-fashioned attitudes and apathy. Even the sceptics had to acknowledge that the Spiros' activities were important and effective. What was also vital was their success in attracting new and inspiring teachers, many of whom had had little or no previous teaching experience.
All of this evolved over two decades of great effort combined with slow but increasing support from many different sources.
Spiro Ark and the new challenge
But what was new and forward-thinking twenty years ago is not necessarily so today. In the new millennium there are new and even greater problems facing Jewish education and therefore Jewish survival. These problems are much talked about but little acted upon. Nitza and Robin, and their loyal and long-standing team at Spiro Ark, believe that they have the power, the passion and the proof to show the lead in this struggle. For we have reached a true watershed in Jewish history.
Each new demographic survey produced anticipates the disappearance of the majority of the Jewish people within two generations - through intermarriage, secular education and assimilation. Each new religious survey produced confirms the growing non-attendance at many synagogues.
But while a great falling away is undoubtedly taking place, it is important to recognise that the rejection of the synagogue does not mean a rejection by the individual of his or her 'Jewishness' or even their sense of Jewish responsibility. However, unless such people are encouraged to learn, then at least as far as the majority is concerned, we may as well say goodbye, thus making a mockery of Jewish history.
Facing this situation and knowing how effective their work has always been, Nitza and Robin Spiro have once again taken up the challenge. They have established SPIRO ARK where their ideas and talents will again be allowed to flourish.
But the basic problem is that today, despite being highly educated, for the first time in remembered Jewish history, the majority of Jews are Jewishly ignorant. And without knowledge there can be little understanding or hope.
WHAT WE MUST LEARN IS - WHO WE ARE, WHERE WE CAME FROM AND, AS A RESULT, THE MIRACLE OF OUR VERY EXISTENCE AS JEWS AND WHAT THIS REALISATION BRINGS IN ITS TRAIN.
Why did Nitza and Robin Spiro choose the Ark as a symbol? For two reasons; first because the Ark was the means of surviving the flood - today the deluge is disintegration which is threatening to sweep away the majority of the Jewish people. And connected with the Ark are the dove and the rainbow; symbols of peace and continuity so essential in today's fractured and warring Jewish world where so many traditional values have lost their meaning. Secondly, there is the Ark of the Covenant representing both Jewish spirituality and learning. The logo of SPIRO ARK is that of a star and a spark, alluding to the cabalistic yearning for light and enlightenment.
In the Ark of the flood all were welcome . Contact us for details of courses and events at: