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I just received this very helpful outline on how to handle issues relating to the December holiday season from Shelley Rose, the Associate Director of the Anti-Defamation League based here in Atlanta. If you would like to have a better understanding of the law and how to interact with your child’s school, please read this memo. Shelley gave me permission to share it with you.
The Anti-Defamation League knows that as the December holiday season approaches, incidents of inappropriate and insensitive religious expression tend to arise in our public schools. School-based holiday celebrations often frustrate Jewish fathers and mothers who both want to instill a Jewish identity in their children and to encourage them to learn about other faith communities.
Religious neutrality in public schools is assured through the First Amendment of the Constitution but many parents may not know how to determine if that line has been crossed or how to react when it has been. It is a constant challenge to guarantee both that public schools remain within constitutional bounds and that the teaching staffs are sensitive to the different faiths represented.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast Region Office offers an interactive workshop for parents and students on the “ABC’s of Religion in the Public Schools.” Adapted to the specific needs of the specific group, this workshop, presented by a trained staff member, will help parents identify the types of religious activities that are acceptable for a public school environment and where to go for help in addressing situations in their child’s school that are insensitive or unconstitutional.
I recently sent information to school superintendents in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee outlining general guidelines around this issue. That information is copied below. Additional resources are available on the ADL website at this link.
If you would like any further information, please contact:
Shelley Rose, Associate Director
t: 404-262-3470 | f: 404-262-3548 | c:678-938-1399 | firstname.lastname@example.org
MEMO TO PUBLIC SCHOOL LEADERS
Subject: 2013 December Dilemma Letters & Chart
Dear School Superintendent and School Board Attorney:
As the December holidays approach, we at the Anti-Defamation League — one of the nation’s premier organizations defending religious liberty — know that many school districts are faced with difficult questions about how to appropriately acknowledge the December holidays. In an effort to help you comply with the United States Constitution and create a school environment that celebrates diversity by respecting differing points of view concerning religion, we offer the following suggestions and encourage you to share them with teachers and staff in your district.
- General Rule: When a school does choose to acknowledge the December holidays, it is essential that the school must never appear to endorse religion over non-religion or one particular religious faith over another.
- Public schools must remain free from activities that could involve religious coercion. Because of their young age, students are particularly impressionable and susceptible to pressure to conform to the beliefs of the majority. Schools must take care to avoid endorsing the beliefs, practices or traditions of the majority religion.
- Schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not). Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional. Teaching about a holiday will be constitutional if it furthers a genuine secular program of education, is presented objectively, and does not have the effect of endorsing, advancing or inhibiting religion.
- Special school events, assemblies, concerts and programs must be designed to further a secular and objective program of education and must not focus on any one religion or religious observance. Religious music or drama may be included in school events, but the reason for including that music or drama must be to advance a secular educational goal. Such events must not promote or denigrate any particular religion, serve as a religious celebration, or become a forum for religious devotion.
- Religious symbols are not appropriate seasonal decorations in public schools. The classroom and school premises are the place where children spend the majority of their day. It is important that all students feel comfortable and accepted in their school. Symbols of religious holidays may make some students uncomfortable and unwelcome because their holidays and traditions are not represented or because they do not celebrate religious holidays at all.
- In an effort to be ecumenical, it is not advisable to rely on information provided by a representative child of a minority religion. Students should not be put on the spot to explain their religious (or cultural) traditions. The student may feel uncomfortable and may not have enough information to be accurate. Moreover, by asking a student to be spokesperson for his/her religion, the teacher is sending a signal that the religion is too “exotic” for the teacher to understand. Finally, in certain cases, the teacher may be opening the door for proselytizing activity by the student, which must be avoided.
- Remember: diversity includes religious diversity. In designing holiday programming it is essential to keep in mind that the children entrusted to your care likely have widely divergent religious points of view. The way you approach the December holidays will determine whether those children whose religious views fall outside of the majority’s are made to feel welcome and comfortable in their school building or whether they will feel as if they do not belong.
- Of course during non-curricular time, secondary school students may participate in student-led and student-initiated activities that acknowledge or celebrate the holidays on the same terms that they can participate in non-religious activity. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in the event, nor should they be sending the message that the school endorses the event. School officials also have an obligation to ensure that students who are not inclined to participate are not coerced in any way by fellow students who are participating. Finally, school personnel cannot promote or participate in such events in their official capacities, although they may be present to monitor the event for compliance with school rules.
We also have a number of publications that can be of help.
- Religion in the Public Schools. A comprehensive look at the law of religion in the public schools in an easy to understand and use format, including a chapter on “Teaching About Religious Holidays.”
- Religious Issues in your Child’s Public School: A Guide For Jewish Parents
These publications are available on line at our Religious Freedom web-page, http://www.adl.org/civil-rights/religious-freedom/; and hard copies of these publications are available by contacting me at email@example.com or 404-262-3470. I am also available to lead workshops on this topic with staff and teachers. Let me know if you have any questions.
More and more people are contacting me with concerns about issues relating to the separation of church and state in our local public schools. Let me first say… I hear you! I am choosing to share this info here instead of an email because this forum will give us an opportunity to publicly interact with one another regarding the questions we all have.
The challenges we face are, in general, not about a malicious effort to sideline our kids, but a lack of awareness and understanding of the religious needs of minorities in our community. I will submit to you that the primary challenge is ignorance (I don’t mean this in a pejorative way). The best antidote towards ignorance is education. I consistently find that my daughters’ teachers are understanding and supportive when we give them as much information as we can with plenty of notice.
So my suggestions start with two things: as soon as possible, write to your child’s teachers (or your child should him/herself if s/he is an older student) and explain, now, that your child needs to miss school on certain days for religious reasons.
(Part of the problem we face is when our Jewish neighbors don’t observe holy days, I often hear from our school administrators something like: “our Jewish teachers said it was ok.” If your school administrator or teacher has any questions about Jewish tradition and observance as they plan their calendars, I would be glad to advise on how to approach things as best as possible.)
My younger two daughters are in the Cobb County School District. I can see the Administration’s efforts to encourage faculty and administrators to be mindful, especially when scheduling events. Here is one example of their Diversity Dialogue Bulletin for Cobb County Schools. Cobb also has guidelines on using religious music in school: Cobb Country Guidelines on Religious Music. Yet, we often see conflicts with the calendar and different activities and tests.
Cobb, Fulton, and other districts in the State of Georgia do excuse absences for religious reasons. It was recently affirmed in Cobb’s literature here. Fulton spells out the policy in its Parent-Student Handbook.
Regarding tests, there is no law or policy that prohibits faculty from giving tests on holy days. However, a parent who writes with plenty of time and is courteous and grateful will (almost) always be heard and respected. When I write that my kids will be missing school for the Days of Awe, Sukkot, Pesach, etc., I make a clear request to not schedule tests that day. If there must be one, to provide adequate opportunities for my daughters to make it up.
Another suggestion is to give your school’s principal a list of these holy days. (The Anti-Defamation League-Southeast Chapter gives a multi-year Jewish calendar to county Boards of Education, routinely.) You can ask them to encourage their faculty to avoid tests on these holy days so that our kids don’t feel penalized or stressed to make up the work. If there has to be a test, since it is an excused absence, an appropriate solution for a make up would be necessary.
I know we don’t want our children to receive a greater burden than necessary when it comes to their school work, however… I am going to make a plea: We will communicate to schools and to our kids that school comes before our selves and our spiritual health if we go into school on our holiest of days. Encourage your daughter/son to stand tall when it comes to their Jewish identity and observance. If we don’t, it becomes a very slippery slope in terms of connections later on.
I have also been hearing a lot about religious activities after school on school property. Due to Constitutional protections, there is no breach to have religious based activities in the school’s facility outside of school hours. So when we hear that there is an effort to have a Rise Up for Christ group in the public schools, or a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any other activity, it is legal for groups to do so. However, we need to be mindful when the school itself distributes the information or a school sanctioned group like the PTA endorses it. Those are examples where the school’s leadership needs to be confronted because the school cannot advance a religious based club or class. So if groups have the right to meet after school, we also have the right to not be confronted or recruited to participate.
In high school, when students are thought to be more self-assured, there is more flexibility when it comes to recruiting among students. But in elementary school, it is not quite as open. When there are feelings among kids to join these groups, our kids sometimes don’t want to be left out or feel pressured. If there is a tone in your elementary school where your child is being actively recruited for such programs, you ought to contact the school principal and request that they intervene.
For more information about legal issues in our public schools relating to the separation of church and state, I encourage you to read the ADL’s Religion in the Public Schools. The complete PDF document is here: http://www.adl.org/assets/pdf/civil-rights/religiousfreedom/rips/ReligPubSchs-PDF.pdf
If you are having difficulty, please feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-642-0434 x217. You can also contact Shelley Rose, Associate Director of the ADL-Southeast Region:
One last thing… here is a sample of an email that I am sending to my own kids’ teachers, and I will copy the appropriate principal or vice principal:
Dear Ms. XYZ,
I wanted to write to you to let you know that the Jewish High Holy Days are approaching and my daughter, Yael, will be missing a few days of school. This year, Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday and Friday, September 5 and 6. Yom Kippur doesn’t start until Friday night, so she will be in school that day. But there is another Festival immediately afterwards called Sukkot (the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles in English). She will be absent Thursday, September 19 for that holy day, too.
The next round of Jewish holy days are not until the spring.
We would be very grateful if her teachers do not schedule tests or major assignments on those days. She will be glad to make up the work. Since they are holy days and she will be in the synagogue for a fair part of those days, if she can get her assignments in advance, that will make things easier for her since she won’t have the time to do the make up work on the those holy days. It would be a great help if she can get as much work as possible done in advance so that it doesn’t become a challenge to make up her work. If she needs to do it after those days, we would appreciate a little extra time to make up that work.
After working with hundreds of students who have stepped forward to lead a congregation in prayer and to inspire them to live Jewish lives…it was my daughters’ turn. Yael and Leora each became a bat mitzvah just one month ago, and I couldn’t have felt prouder.
I knew that they were well prepared (I had a little insight into that). I knew that their Hebrew was up to par. But to actually witness your children before you leading services like this is to see your past and future simultaneously stand in front of you. I was proud of how they conducted our service. I was proud of how they had their own honest encounter with the Torah. I was grateful to God for giving them this opportunity and for enabling Deborah and me to learn from them.
So…all in all, it was a great day!
But truth be told, I was completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t pronounce their names when I was supposed to call them forward to light the candles on Friday eve. I just said “come here.” And a highlight of Shabbat morning’s tefilah/service was to have an aliyah to the Torah with my beloved next to me as we stood next to Leora.
Then it happened… we began to chant the blessing and…yes…“yours truly” messed it up!
There was a roar of laughter from the congregation that I have never heard before. I was so caught up in the moment that after 11 years of correcting parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and kids…I got fermisht myself!
What is the lesson to be learned from this? Is it that I should brush up on the blessings before I do it again? I don’t think so. I think my lesson is to take every moment I can as a father and husband to heart… and seek to be present. So present in the moment that I forget what I am supposed to do because the world stops so I can encounter it.
What is the lesson for my congregants? Do they make sure the “cheat sheet” for the blessings is up on the reading table before I endeavor to this again? No, probably not. Perhaps there is another lesson that is just as important as the first: that your rabbi is a dad who got fermisht on the bimah like lots of dads and moms. Maybe, as hard as he tries to be a good rabbi, he is just a guy with his fair share of flaws who loves that his girls love Torah and have grown into such mensches.
So on this Shabbat, being a dad trumped being a rabbi for a moment. I hope you didn’t mind. In fact, I know…it was actually a great part of the celebration.
I call this blog “Ayekah — Where are you?” I think it is the ultimate spiritual question. But it isn’t simply about how we look inward to find contentment… it is about how we look inward to have meaningful and authentic encounters with others. Ayekah, as a value, is calling out for us again. We need to be there for our children and students who are going to begin to learn more and more abuot what had happened in Connecticut. This post is to share some thoughts and links to help us maneuver through a dreadful conversation with young children and students.
First and foremost…our hearts go out to the families, educators, neighbors in Newtown, CT. Our community will keep you all in our prayers for strength and healing in the many days, weeks, and months to come.
I think it is really important to have this conversation with our children who are in elementary school. They are going to her about it somewhere along the line and I would rather have them hear truths rather than the exagerated rumors that have already begun to circulate. But it does not need to be the whole story. It can be general. But the thing to share is…they are safe. Yes, we all know that we do not have total control over our lives. But young children need to feel secure and safe and to know that we are not going anywhere, and neither are they.
My colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes shared some very succinct thoughtful suggestions that I want to share with you:
- Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do (National Institute for Mental Health)
- Simple Pointers for Parents
- Reform movement resources, including links about talking about death to children: http://urj.org/life/community/family/bereavement/
May the Kadosh Baruch Hu console the bereaved and give strength to their loved ones.
May the day come speedily and soon when we will turn our swords into plowshares so we will never have to face such senseless loss of life.
May these children and their teachers be always remembered for a blessing…
How many times have you heard the flight attendant in the front of the plane give those same directions:
“… In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. If you are traveling with a child, place your mask on first …”
What great Torah! Who knew it would come from a Delta Flight Attendant!
My friend Ira Wise shared this idea on his blog. What’s the point you may ask? The point to the airplane passenger is clear: you can’t care for your child or the person you are caring for unless you take care for yourself first.
We often see folks in the Jewish community focus a lot of attention on children. It is important — crucial — to insure that the next generation of Jews has a meaningful, worthwhile Jewish education. But the best way to make this guarantee is for us — the adult parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, siblings — to get enough “oxygen” for ourselves first. It is hard to have our children be inspired by Judaism if we don’t show them that we are. We can’t teach our children to act like a mensch unless they see us doing so. They won’t live generous lives unless they see us be generous ourselves (with time and yes, with tzedakah).
Ayekah is about asking the ultimate question: “Where are you?”
I believe with all my heart that our children will learn how to be Jewish from us. Rabbis, cantors, educators, youth workers, among others can never be a replacement for the parent searching for his/her own relationship with God, Israel and Torah.
So imagine me as your flight attendant for this journey:
Welcome to the 2011! It is a complicated world and sometimes we have overwhelming pressure. To get through it, grab your Torah…take it for yourself and pass it on to your children or the children in your lives (of any age!)….
I wish you a safe and fulfilling journey.
P.S. If you want to start your trip and are a part of Beth Tikvah’s community, be sure to check out our adult learning opportunities. Rabbi Tam is sharing his Jewish response to modern day atheist arguments on Sunday mornings, I am teaching a class on the Arab Israeli Conflict at the JCC-Zaban campus (TBT members get the JCC member rate), and we have a great new program called Ayeka! Ayeka was created in Israel three years ago by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, who has been teaching adults for 30 years. This program’s goal is not about information, but personal transformation. Ayeka meets in small groups in which people look at Jewish texts as a point of departure for exploring how to bring meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions, enhancing our days and our interactions. I am hoping our TBT friends will be inerested in joining us for this experience. Joan Marks is hosting a “Taste of Ayeka” before the full seminar starts. If you would like to sign up for the “Taste,” it will be at on Sunday, January 23rd at 10 am. We are limited to only 20 people, so if you are interested, contact me or Joan directly.