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My Youth Advisors (Adam and Bobbee Griff) were right…
Hosting a Regional NFTY event wouldn’t just be great for our teens, but it would have the power to transform our youth programs even further towards becoming a Youth Community.
We had 324 Jewish teens in our facility this past weekend. That in and of itself was a miracle. But more than sheer numbers, what was so powerful was my ability to witness some amazing things.
We had 45 kids from our synagogue alone opt in to try to have an encounter with a Youth Community. For many, this was their first event; for others, they see themselves as seasoned veterans at these retreats. But our newcomers and those from all around the NFTY-SAR Region (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth — SAR is the Southern Area Region of NFTY), our teens embraced what Ron Wolfston calls the “Spirituality of Welcoming,” reaching out and connecting people to one another. s
They focused on teaching about different kinds of families, our commitments towards inclusion and our respect for diversity. The educational programming was thoughtful and our teens walked away with the perspective of how every family is precious and has integrity.
Our prayer experiences were tremendous. I know I like the traditional tones of our service, but I was exhilarated and inspired by their JOY. There were no spectators in that sanctuary. Our kids PRAYED — with songs that brought them closer to one another and (whether they know it or not…) to God!
But here is the thing. Our youth advisors challenged us to take on almost all of the housing responsibilities ourselves. Most host congregations reach out to their neighboring synagogues for some help. Why not? Who couldn’t use some extra help? The challenge was made and we needed 70 host families. 60 came from our synagogue. That means, more congregants were able to witness some of these peak moments like I did. They saw a ruach-filled sanctuary come to a quiet, soulful moment as the students sang Sh’ma — holding on to each word for an entire breath. These hosts saw our NFTYites laugh and play, learn and teach. It wasn’t just our youth group board that had responsibilities…it was an array of teens from 8th through 12th grades who played a part. They and their parents were so invested in the success of this kallah.
These hosts — not all of whom even have kids in high school or NFTY! — were able to see how lives could be changed by a meaningful, compelling, fun Jewish experience. So I don’t just have a lot of kids going to Jewish events… I have a bunch of teens who want to build a community and parents who are no longer bystanders. They witnessed how great it is for their kids to find other Jewish teens with similar Jewish needs — for community, for prayer, for justice, and for hope.
So here is the unapologetic, unabashed pitch… help us. Temple Beth Tikvah has three ways to help us support our teens. Consider:
an act of tzedakah to our Annual Campaign to support everything that is happening in the synagogue — there is no corner that is not touched by these gifts.
- an act of tzedakah to our Camp/Israel Scholarship Fund — help us get more kids to summer programs in Israel, Jewish summer camps and learning programs.
- an act of tzedakah to our Youth Group Fund that provides scholarships for our teens to go to NFTY events when there is financial need or to help fund special programs for our teens.
You can select any of these funds by going to: http://www.bethtikvah.com/make-donation
Make a gift in honor of your teen, of our event, of our Youth Advisors, of our Youth Committee volunteers. The Jewish way of expressing our gratitude is by paying it forward. I am grateful for all who invest in our youth.
Bobbee and Adam — thank you. To our youth group Board and our Kallah Chairpeople — may you all go from strength to strength. To our Youth Committee and parent volunteers — we couldn’t make these things happen without you. To all of our staff, partners, stakeholders, leaders, schleppers, cooks, bottlewashers… it really does take a village.
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.