Ramat Gan, Israel and Selma, Alabama

A turning point in society.

Rabbi Chaim (Ian) Pear,

OpEds Chaim Pear.jpg
Chaim Pear.jpg
Arutz 7

Apparently, a small of group of Israeli high school students who have chosen to pray minchah (the afternoon prayer service) represent a great threat to the powers that be in a secular Ramat Gan school. Not only did the school ban the prayer services, it is now prepared to expend limited educational resources to defend this abhorrent policy in the courts.

This is not a case of religious coercion of, or even religious intrusion into, the lives of secular students. No one was
This is not a case of religious coercion.
asked, let alone pressured, to join the prayer group. And certainly, in a school of 2,000 people, the prospect of having 15 people gather in a small, unused room in an out-of-the-way part of the school should not present any personal discomfort to the thousands of non-attending students.

I remember that, as a child in a US public school, I was told by my parents to step outside the classroom during the morning prayers - prayers that were in no way inclusive of my religious beliefs. Yes, then I did feel a little awkward, being the only one separated out, but here, the case is not in any way parallel. Here, the issue is not state sponsorship of prayer, perhaps to the detriment of a student’s right to be free from such an obligation; no, here the issue is whether or not a group of students may gather to exercise their freedom to engage in legal, non-intrusive behavior during a break in school.

Certainly, other groups of students are permitted to gather for a whole array of purposes during this time, from playing sports to spreading rumors about teachers to comparing the latest fashions. It seems highly unfair that the only gathering banned is one in which the students want to pray to God.

And the excuse the administration used to justify their actions? If the students wish to pray, they can go to another school; i.e., they’re not welcome here.

When I read that, a particular image immediately popped into mind: Selma, Alabama.

In 1965, when Blacks in the city began registering to vote, the White population prevented them from doing so through formal discrimination, and through informal intimidation and harassment. When civil rights activists protested this situation three weeks later in an attempted march to the state capital, Montgomery, the powers that be, including the police and the local judiciary, brazenly defied the activists and the law. Many marchers were beaten up in the spotlight of the media by people unashamedly declaring the righteousness of their cause - i.e., discrimination - preventing the march from taking place.

Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not comparing the violent tactics used in Selma with the relatively peaceful situation in Ramat Gan. I am not comparing the abusive and racist police of Selma with the decent, albeit misguided, administration of the school. I simply am pointing out that the same small-mindedness and intolerance of differences that pervaded Selma is also rearing its head now. And that is something to be worried about.

But not worry alone. For while this whole saga is somewhat depressing, there is also a beautiful silver lining. Allow
The same... intolerance of differences that pervaded Selma is also rearing its head now.
me to share with you a story to illustrate what I mean.

In the wake of the Holocaust, an American army rabbi entered the Mauthausen concentration camp. There, as one might imagine, he found barely breathing skeletons, nearly devoid of any sign of physical life. Spiritual life, however, was a different matter. The survivors instantly took to rejoicing at their good fortune and were all too pleased to join a religious service the rabbi organized shortly after his arrival.

One individual, however, stood apart and was clearly bothered by the whole thing. The American rabbi approached him and asked why he separated himself from the service.

“Rabbi,” he said, “I cannot possibly ever pray again. I cannot possibly believe in God again. I don’t want anything to do with religion.”

The rabbi wondered why. Certainly the man had every right to feel however he felt considering the suffering he had undergone, but so many others had suffered equally devastating cruelties and they flocked to the religious service.

The man explained. During his time in the concentration camp he witnessed a despicable act. One man had succeeded in smuggling in a small siddur, prayer book. This was quite a valuable asset and everyone in his bunk was thrilled by the opportunity to pray from it. But rather than freely offer the use of the siddur to whoever requested it, the man insisted on payment for each use, very often a significant amount of the measly portion of bread each prisoner was given each day.

“After I saw such cruelty, after I witnessed him cynically take advantage of religion for his own wellbeing to the detriment of others, I became so disgusted with religion that I vowed never to return.”

The American rabbi understood the survivor’s words and feelings. He was right, after all. When a religious person does something despicable, it does ‘turn off’ others, and not just to the individual, but to the entire system he represents. But he also realized that there was more to the story:

“Why do you only look at the terrible deeds of the man who sold the right to use the siddur to people willing to make a payment that, for many, threatened their very lives? Why not also look at all the people so dedicated to the words of the siddur they were willing to take such a risk in the first place. Look at their amazing courage and willingness to sacrifice.”

At that point in time, the story goes, the survivor cried and entered the service, rejoining his people and realizing his community was much more special than he had initially thought.

I believe we owe it to the courage of those brave 15 boys who chose to pray in their school - despite the
While this whole saga is somewhat depressing, there is also a beautiful silver lining.
administrative and peer pressure brought to bear to discourage them - to look at the good in this story as opposed to the bad. These kids are not from religious families and, by most accounts, don’t view themselves as religious in the classical sense of the word. They simply want to pray and are prepared to give up a lot - not quite as much as their last piece of bread, but a lot nevertheless - in order to stick up for their right to do so. When such a group of Jews demand the right to pray in a secular school - and when others who have no interest in praying join them in solidarity as a large group of fellow students did recently - we need not be depressed about the wrong-headedness of the school administration (though, of course, we should argue that they ought to change their policy). Rather, we should be inspired by the courage of the good people in this saga.

And one more thing. Remember Selma, Alabama? Two days after the abortive march to Montgomery, 2,500 friends from all over the country descended on Selma to attempt the march once again. A Federal judge eventually stepped into the fray and declared that the march must be protected: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups... and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

May what happened in Ramat Gan symbolize a turning point in Israeli society, as well. May the courts decide that the law also protects the right to petition one’s God, even if that means using a public school.