“Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families,” said Education Secretary Rod Paige in a February 7th letter to public elementary and secondary schools. The letter was part of the new Federal guidelines for prayer in schools which say, among other things, that “students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other non-instructional time to the same extent that they may engage in non-religious activities.”
Several Chabad rabbis in California have taken advantage of the new ruling to encourage the formation of “Jewish Clubs” in public elementary schools and high schools. Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, director of Chabad of Rossmoor, has set up a Jewish Club at the Los Alamitos High School and at the McCauliffe Middle School which meets weekly, during the students lunch hour. He calls the clubs the “Los Al Chai Club” and the “The McAleph Club” respectively.
Twice a week, Marcus loads up his van with kosher pizza and upcoming Holiday materials and heads to the schools. He has a lot material to cram into the all too short lunch hour. A few words about the weekly Torah reading, info on an upcoming holiday, answering any questions the students may have and of course, eating the pizza. “Last week the teenagers wanted to talk about the passion movie and gay marriage” said Rabbi Marcus. “We discuss anything and everything that is on their minds. No subject is taboo.”
Maya Erman, a sophomore at Los Al High is the president of their Jewish club, which must be requested by students and sponsored by teachers. She says that “the club is open to anyone on campus that wants to meet other Jews and just have fun.” Rabbi Marcus notes that “Maya and students like her in other schools, deserve a lot of credit for their efforts on behalf of the clubs.”
Rabbi Michi Rav-Noy has Jewish clubs in Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and Birmingham High in Encino. “We try to reinforce their day school or Hebrew school knowledge” says Rav-Noy. “And we try to establish personal contact outside of the school as well. We invite the students to join our families for Shabbat and holiday dinners and recently made a Bar Mitzvah for a Russian teenager who had never had one.” Rav-Noy also brings guest speakers to the schools whenever possible and a recent visit by an Israeli soldier was enthusiastically received by the students. Another project will have the teenagers packing food for delivery to the homeless. Both Rav-Noy and Marcus are throwing Purim parties this Sunday at the schools and expect more than 100 students in each location.
Rabbi Mayer Greene alternates his Jewish club activities at the Birmingham High School with the entertaining and the educational. “On Purim I’ll come in costume and read the Megillah in 15 minutes flat and on other days I’ll bring in a video of Palestinian children learning hate in their schools” says Greene. One of the students’ favorite programs is the Jewish birthday party Greene throws yearly after researching each teenager’s Jewish birthday and presenting them with a certificate. “The research allows the kids to understand the difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendar,” says Greene “so it’s a learning experience every which way.”
Rabbi Marcus and his wife Bluma, invite the students and their families in both schools to join them for Shabbat dinner once a month at the Marcus home. “It’s not unusual for us to have upwards of 40 people on a Friday night” says Bluma. “Parents call us and say, ‘you don’t know how much your club is helping our children with their Jewish pride.’”
Rabbi Baruch Hecht has Jewish clubs in University High and Palisades High Schools in Los Angeles. He says that when non-Jewish students see him on the campus, they’ll say ‘hey rabbi, Jewish Club today?’ “It makes the Jewish kids proud to be Jews” says Hecht. “Because high school campuses have become hotbeds of political activism with groups such as the Moslem club, the Palestinian club etc.,the fact that Jewish kids have a place where they can get together and remember they’re Jews and have a good time, is vitally important to the next generation of Jews in this country.”
All the rabbis involved in the program throughout California stress the need for more Jewish venues for teens and Rabbi Marcus has plans for a program that will bring together all the club members throughout the state for one mega unity event.
The concept of Jewish education for public school children was pioneered by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schnnersohn in 1941, when the New York Dept of Education allowed for “Release Time Programs” in the public schools. The previous Rebbe galvanized his followers into action, sending dozens of rabbinical students to organize Release Time programs for Jewish children using adjacent local synagogues as a meeting place. The programs were a catalyst for Jewish growth and pride in the post Holocaust era and gave a much needed boost to the then fledgling day school system.
After the Rebbe’s passing in 1950, his successor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, continued and expanded upon the program which is in operation uninterruptedly to this day. The National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, which supervises the program, also sponsors winter camps, Shabbatons, Yeshiva and day school scholarships and home visits for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children that have participated in the programs to date. Rabbi Zirkind of the NCFJE maintains that “many of the children who first learned about Judaism through the Released time program, have gone on to become Jewish leaders in their respective communities.”
In an interesting aside, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus recalls that “one of the teachers at Los Al High vividly remembered Chabad rabbis coming to her school in the Bronx when she was a child in the late fifties, so she knew right away what we were doing and wanted to be part of it.”