NEW YORK (Dec. 14)
Both victories and defeats were reported today from various school districts in the annual struggle of Jewish communal relations agencies to win elimination or at least de-emphasis of Christmas programs in public schools.
The Hartsdale Board of Education in Westchester rejected a request from a group of residents for permission to build a Nativity scene on the lawn of the Central Avenue School. Last October, the school board voted to give away a creche owned by the school district because “the propriety of the ownership and utilization by a school district of a sectarian religious symbol is subject to question.” The creche had been displayed at the school grounds for 20 years prior to last Christmas.
In heavily Jewish Essex county of New Jersey, the local Community Relations Council reported that such observances were of “mounting concern” to Essex County Jews. The Council added that “excusing Jewish children from participation is not the whole answer.”
Philip E. Hoffman, chairman of the Council, urged parents, rabbis and Jewish organizations of the area to bring specific problems to the Council for consultation “rather than seek to deal with them forthwith.” He added he hoped that procedure would reduce “the most flagrant violations” while avoiding the often serious community tensions which often develop from the Jewish fight against sectarian practices in public schools during the Yule period.
He reiterated that the Council, in line with general Jewish policy, opposed both Christmas and Chanukah celebrations “as a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.” The option of Jewish children to refrain from participation in Christmas observances was often “an empty right,” he said, because Jewish children, like all children “wish to be part of their group and have a right to feel equally welcome in tax-supported schools.”
JEWISH GROUPS IN VARIOUS STATES OPPOSE RELIGIOUS PLAYS
Meanwhile representatives of Jewish Community Relations Councils in all of New Jersey’s 21 counties appeared before the State Board of Education in Trenton to ask the board to define acceptable religious demonstrations in public schools during the Yule period. All registered opposition to any use of public school property for religious purposes.
They cited among objectionable situations cases where Jewish children had been asked to portray the Christ child in Nativity plays, classroom window decorations containing crosses and Nativity scenes on school property.
Sam Brown, executive director of the New Jersey region of the American Jewish Congress, told the board that “we oppose any use of public school property for religious uses” and emphasized this was not a stand against religion. Dr. Frederick Raubinger, New Jersey Education Commissioner, said it was too late to issue a policy statement for the Christmas period this month but that the board would ask the State Division Against Discrimination to meet with school principals to discuss the problem for later years.
The problem took a somewhat different form in the Greater Philadelphia area where the local Jewish Community Relations Council expressed alarm over reports that Chanukah plays and programs had been staged in public schools during the holiday season.
The Council there reaffirmed the stand of opposition to all sectarian religious practices in public schools and said such programs placed “an additional obstacle in the way of our rabbis and congregants, which have the same problems as churches in prevailing on congregants to observe all religious occasions in the proper religious manner,” in the home and house of worship.
IMPACT OF JEWISH OPPOSITION REPORTED TO BE MINIMAL
Jewish community leaders in a number of major Connecticut cities joined in support of the principle that sectarian observances of religious holidays–Christian or Jewish–should not be held in the public schools. They included Hartford, New Haven, Witerbury, New London, Manchester, Meriden, New Britain, Norwalk and Stanford.
The impact of these publicly stated positions on school boards appeared to be minimal, however. In Manchester, violations of the principle were reported to exist. In Meriden, Rabbi Albert Troy said the same problem existed but children were not required to participate. Christmas celebrations are regularly held in New London schools but Jewish children do not participate.
In Norwalk, the Jewish Community Council decided action against such observances needed more discussion but that nothing was being planned currently to deal with the problem. In Stamford, the interfaith climate was described as good and Jewish officials were reluctant to take any action which would “disturb a good relationship.” A switch on a ban on Christmas observances in Hamden public schools followed a stormy meeting of the board of education. Superintendent David Wyllie had sent out a memo asking school superintendents to tone down Christmas observances and eliminate Chanukah observances. After the board meeting, the memo was rescinded and the board announced that “Christmas will be observed in the schools as it always has been.”