National Jewish Conference Deals with Ban on Prayer in Schools
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National Jewish Conference Deals with Ban on Prayer in Schools

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Recent United States Supreme Court rulings barring Bible reading and prayer from public schools were seen as both a vindication and a challenge for Jewish communities at a three-day conference under the auspices of the Joint Advisory Committee of the Synagogue Council of America and the National Community Relations Advisory Council, that closed here today.

The conference was attended by representatives of some 30 national Jewish organizations and Jewish councils in 50 cities throughout the United States. It was held for purposes of exploration only; no attempts were made to express consensus and resolutions or votes were barred. A report of the proceedings is to be made available to all interested organizations for study.

The unconstitutionality of virtually all devotional religious exercises and observances in public schools having been established by those rulings, many problems were nevertheless fore seen at the parley. These include problems of obtaining full compliance with the Court’s rulings; blocking efforts to amend the Constitution so as to allow Bible reading and prayer and thus overturn the Supreme Court decision; preventing the spread of “shared time” programs, whereby parochial school pupils are given instruction in certain “non-religious subjects” in public schools; and obtaining federal aid for public education only, without accompanying grants of public money to religiously controlled institutions.

Rabbi Morris Adler, of Detroit, and Leo Pfeffer, director of the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress, told the conference that the latest Supreme Court rulings had ushered in an era of religious pluralism in America. They urged greater and more secure Jewish participation in the processes of making public policy on public education and other issues.


In a discussion on federal aid to education speakers cautioned that tax support for religiously controlled schools also would tend toward a spread of such schools and fragmentation and attrition of the American public school system. Among Orthodox participants, there were some who took a position at variance with this predominating view.

Since the Supreme Court had not ruled out the use of religious writings as literature or the teaching about religion in the public schools, a session of the conference dealt with the place of religion in the public school curriculum in the light of the ruling Dr. Mark Belth, associate professor of educational philosophy at New York’s Queens College, said that the essential purpose of education, which is to cultivate the individual’s powers of critical analysis, is inevitably in conflict with the absolutist character of nearly every religious faith.

Isaac Franck, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, suggested a number of ways in which study about religion might be introduced into the public school curriculum without overstepping the bar against religious teaching or indoctrination. The Jewish community was seen as facing the challenge of helping to develop curricular materials that would incorporate such teaching materials, in cooperation with Christian faith groups and with public school officials.

Experience with shared time in Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago were reported by Dr. Norman Drachler, Detroit assistant superintendent of schools; Sydney C. Ortofsky, vice-president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Philadelphia; and Rabbi Irving Rosenbaum, of the Chicago Loop Synagogue and former executive director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Reports from other cities were given by conference participants at a session at which Samuel l. Brennglass, vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, was chairman.


Reporting on a preliminary survey of public school practices in the period immediately following the Supreme Court rulings on Bible reading and prayer, David Cook, president of the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council, noted that compliance with the ruling had been general in the eastern and northern section of the country, but that there was widespread disregard of it in many parts of the South.

Marvin Braiterman, of Baltimore, consultant on church-state relations to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who was chairman of the session at which Mr. Cook reported, stressed that the ruling had made most public school administrators more sensitive to the problem of religious practices and that the time was ripe for approaches to them and to boards of education in efforts to bring about correction of objectionable practices.

Participating in the conference were individuals associated with national Jewish cultural and educational organizations, as well as the congregational, rabbinic, civic and community relations agencies comprising the Synagogue Council of America and the NCRAC.

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