For many American Jews, school prayer evokes images of commencement ceremonies and sporting events blessed in the name of Jesus. For me, the words "school prayer" bring back a vivid picture of Mrs. Roberts, my gray-haired childhood headmistress, imprinting a core statement of Christian faith on my malleable young brain years before I could read a letter of Hebrew or recite the Shema, the core proclamation of my own religion.

As the only Jew and the only American at a public elementary school in a centuries-old farm hamlet in Great Britain, I was often singled out. It was only right that I played Moses in the school play (Exodus, abridged for six year olds), and my Jewishness scored me a non-speaking part in the mandatory annual reenactment of Christ's birth. I also found myself the lone Jew at the school's mandatory daily assembly, where Mrs. Roberts, cordial and proper as only the British can be, each day led my class in the Lord's Prayer.

My mother, a teacher from the Bronx, tried to explain to the folks at Saint Mary's Primary School why her Jewish son shouldn't have to sit through the Lord's Prayer each day. They were happy to excuse me from "religious education" classes, since these were intended specifically to teach Christianity. But they didn't understand why I couldn't just sit quietly while they all said the Lord's Prayer, as long as I wasn't forced to join in.

Raising my brother and me on her own in a foreign country was hard enough for my mother without the combined might of Her Majesty's Church of England competing for my Jewish soul. A teacher at the local U.S. military base, she recruited a Jewish sergeant to give me some lessons, and for a while we drove two hours each way to the only Hebrew school around. But occasional lessons and take-home exercises are little match for daily schoolhouse indoctrination. In spite of myself, more than two decades later, I can still recite the words of someone else's faith -- "Our Father who art in heaven..." -- without really thinking.

I told this story to a colleague once -- a conservative Christian -- trying to convince him that school-sanctioned prayer is wrong. "It obviously didn't do you any harm," he responded. In a sense, he's right. My experience didn't lead me to act out against religion in general. Instead I resented this foreign state's claim on my religious self and reacted by seeking out a Jewish education later in life. My fierce American patriotism comes not from having saluted Old Glory each morning, but from having lived some of what our Constitution generally shields us against.

Now I am a husband and father working together with my wife, like so many young Jewish parents in America, to keep a Jewish home and to raise my son as a proud Jew and a patriotic American. My firsthand experience with a system that caused me, a Jew, to learn Christianity's central prayer before even learning the central declaration of my own faith has always made me especially sensitive to state-sponsored religion in schools and especially thankful that I live in a country where religious leaders don't dictate what public schools teach our children. But recent court cases and political proclamations have inched the United States a little closer to a world in which parents determined to raise Jewish children must compete not only with the annual Christmas barrage, but also with the schools we so often rely on as partners in our children's upbringing.

This summer the Supreme Court ruled to let taxpayer-funded vouchers pay for parochial schools. As a Jewish parent, I can imagine a future in which public schools, drained of money by vouchers, decline to where parents have no choice but to send their children to private schools; but the most affordable private schools -- the ones where a voucher alone will cover the costs -- will likely be church-subsidized parochial schools.

And after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, there seems to be newfound unanimity among our national leaders (especially the ones up for re-election in November) that America is a nation "under God," and that we must proclaim so in our public schools. Just last week, the House of Representatives voted 401 to 5 to keep "under God" in the pledge. President Bush has linked "under God" to the war on terrorism, apparently unaware that the traditional Pledge of Allegiance--the one before God was added in 1954--was good enough for the Americans who crushed Hitler.

Hopefully U.S. public schools aren't on their way to becoming the religious classrooms I grew up with in England. But the current political climate doesn't make me optimistic. I fear it's becoming easier for right-wing forces to impose a religious agenda on America's schools--things like Louisiana's Christ-centered abstinence-only sex education program, or the growing push to teach religion as science.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus