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Conservative Rabbis Concerned by Possible ‘heightened Tensions’ Between Jews and Christians During T

August 21, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Concerned by the possibility of “heightened tension ” between Jews and Christians in the coming Christmas holiday season, stemming from the Supreme Court decision upholding the right of officials of Powtucket, R.I. to create creche displays on public property, the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, has asked its 1,200 members to explain to Christians and municipal officials the Jewish objection to such displays on public property during the Yule period.

Rabbi Alexander Shapiro of South Orange, N.J., RA president, predicted possible “communal disputes ” in many American cities, adding that “this coming holiday season could be turned into one of anger and tension rather than one of happiness and celebration.”

Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, RA executive vice president, said the request to the Conservative rebbis was the first in the RA’s history, stressing that it involved the strategy of rabbis approaching local Christians and municipal officials on an individual basis and that the appeal was not one from the RA itself.

The request to the RA members was contained in a communication from the RA Social Action Committee, headed by Rabbi Myron Fenster of Roslyn, N.Y.


Shapiro said “we call upon all clergy, Christian and Jewish, to counsel with one another in the communities throughout this country in which a creche display is contemplated to avoid such a step.”

Shapiro said “the Jewish community must make it clear to the Christian community our deep sensitivity regarding such an infringement on church-state separation.”

Fenster said that “most people probably do not realize the damaging effect such a municipally-spon-sored or school display has on the psyche of Jewish children. Many cases exist where young people have given expression to their feelings of confusion and dismay at seeing Christian symbols displayed on public property.”

Fenster said he believed that by holding advance discussions and providing the views of the synagogue and Jewish organizations well ahead of time, “we will help to forestall exacerbating misunderstandings.

He suggested that churches and synagogues be encouraged to erect holiday displays on church and synagogue property. He said his congregation at Shelter Rock Jewish Center planned to build a large Menorah and festively observe Chanuka which begins on the eve of December 18.

Fenster stressed that the Supreme Court ruling “did not read the Constitution as holding there is a right to a creche, or that it was wise for a municipality to erect one, only that such displays did not violate the Establishment Clause.”

He said the decision did not mean that municipalities are now required to build a creche because “it still remains in the power of municipal authorities to reject such displays as not being a wise or proper or fair municipal policy.” He added that the decision was “open to review, to objection and even to further litigation when an appropriate case crises.”

Fenster quoted the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice William Brennan, Jr. that “this creche is a coercive though perhaps small step toward establishing the sectarian preference of the majority at the expense of the minority, “adding that warning “should be taken seriously by all of us.”

He also noted that Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the 5-4 majority opinion, held that “the creche is passive like a painting. To forbid the use of this passive symbol would be a select over-reaction contrary to our history.”

Such an appraisal, Fenster commented “is obviously that of a Christian. It is certainly not that of a Jew or of an upholder of another religion or no religion.” The rabbi added caustically that “one would expect the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to be sensitive to the needs of all the people of this country.”

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