Religious Clubs Are In
BY: JAMES VAZNIS
Nov 17, NEWTON, MA (BOSTON GLOBE) When classes are out, religious clubs increasingly are in.
The rabbi walks through the halls of Newton South High School, wearing a yarmulke and carrying stacks of pizza and donuts. Along the way, the 38-year-old rabbi with the reddish beard and an infectious smile asks students to join him at an afterschool meeting of the Jewish Student Union.
If a student hedges, Rabbi Shmuel Miller mentions the free food.
Miller is among a growing number of religious leaders around the nation who are taking advantage of a four-year-old US Supreme Court ruling that allows religious groups to meet in public schools when classes are not in session. In Massachusetts, the first Jewish Student Union club opened last year at Newton South; this year, chapters of the national nonprofit began in Brookline, Lexington, and Framingham. Evangelical Christians have been running clubs in the last few years in some Boston elementary schools and in some rural towns.
As some principals are banning Christmas trees, menorahs, or Halloween costumes, others are warming to the presence of religious clubs in their schools. They say the clubs' regular dose of religion is improving discipline among younger students and giving older students of minority religions a sense of camaraderie.
''I certainly welcome it," said Deborah Dancy, principal of William Ellery Channing Elementary School in Hyde Park, where Child Evangelism Fellowship opened a Good News Bible Club this year. ''The children who participate in the program are much more courteous, cooperative, and respectful. Anything we can do to reduce discipline problems and develop character we are willing to do at this school."
In some cases, groups that monitor separation of church and state worry that the clubs are becoming too much a part of a school's fabric, because teachers are leading them or students are registering them as official high school clubs. The Supreme Court ruling didn't set restrictions on how the religious clubs should operate in public schools, leaving the ruling open to interpretation. Schools and legal groups have been struggling to figure out how the ruling fits in with an existing federal law that governs equal access to school buildings by outside groups.
''The lines are getting blurrier, and that's most unfortunate," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. ''One of the great strengths of American schools has been neutrality in religions."
To help school districts wade through the murky waters, the Anti-Defamation League has developed guidelines for public schools. Religious groups can advertise meetings, but need parental permission for students to participate, according to the guidelines. In high schools, students must initiate and run official student clubs, while school leaders must avoid being seen as endorsing or disapproving of a faith, the guidelines say.
At meetings of the Jewish Student Union in the Boston area, students play games, watch videos, and discuss a variety of topics, including whether eating kosher is an outdated Jewish ritual and why so many well-known comedians are Jewish. The rabbi and his 26-year-old assistant, Yisrael Schwartz, guide the discussion.
The Jewish Student Union is a nonprofit organization that says it is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism and is open to students of all faiths. An Orthodox rabbi started it three years ago in Los Angeles, as a response to what he saw as proselytizing by evangelical Christians. The group now has 150 chapters in the United States and Canada.
Miller said the clubs in New England are invaluable in connecting him with teens who don't attend programs at synagogues.
''We're fighting the battle of assimilation where Jews are opting out [of their faith] out of ignorance," said Miller, an Orthodox rabbi and the New England director for the Jewish Student Union. ''With the increasing pressure of school work, we need to go to students on their ground and speak to them on their level."
Sometimes, as they work with the students, the rabbi and his assistant sound like MTV hosts trying to galvanize youth into political action. His voice increasingly rising, Schwartz recently spoke to roughly 30 students at a meeting of the newly established Jewish Student Union at Lexington High School.
''Invite and bring a friend to the next meeting. Let's really pump this club," Schwartz said, gesturing with his fist. ''You are part of something big. . . . We're going to rock this school."
On average, the weekly Jewish Student Union meetings at Massachusetts schools draw about 30 students, some of whom are Christians, the rabbi said. Students have applied to their principals to get a union chapter approved as an official school club. The clubs elect officers and appear in the yearbook a student activity.
Linnea Sage, 17, joined Newton South's club last year and has become the club's president.
''If you're just with friends, you'll discuss clothes, boys, and movies, but here, you can listen to people's ideas" about Judaism and Jewish culture, said Sage, who is Jewish.
Michael Welch, who was principal at Newton South when the club started, said he had been concerned the rabbi might proselytize and questioned whether having the word Jewish in the group's name might seem exclusionary.
''For the most part, it's an open, engaging group for kids to study Jewish culture," said Welch, now principal of Framingham High School. ''I didn't see it as proselytizing at all."
But the rabbi and his assistant might be pushing the envelope in what's allowed under federal law by being so involved in the regular running of a high school club meeting, said Lynn.
Miller said he and Schwartz are facilitators, while the students are the ones who call the shots and choose discussion topics from a menu of 30 or 40.
Marjorie Woods, the 16-year-old president of Lexington's club, said it would have been difficult starting the club without the rabbi and his assistant.
''I think we would run out of stuff to talk about, and people would stop coming," Woods said.
Groups that favor separation of church and state say interpretation of the ruling will be tested by religious leaders, especially evangelical Christians who see public schools as fertile ground to deliver messages. The Child Evangelism Fellowship's Good News Clubs were the plaintiffs in the 2001 Supreme Court case filed against a public school in New York state. Since winning the case, the group has quintupled its presence in public schools, to 2,330 clubs.
Child Evangelism Fellowship officials say that biblical stories, memorization of Scripture, and singing religious songs are good character-building exercises for students and are applicable to children of all faiths. They deny they are proselytizing.
''The main thrust of the Good News Club is to help children understand that God loves them and cares about them," said Myron Tschetter, vice president of USA ministries for Child Evangelism Fellowship.
At Pauline A. Shaw Elementary School in Dorchester, nearly 60 students, about one-fifth of the student body, gather each Tuesday after school for Good News Club. Principal Maudlin Wright said she believes that the group's popularity reflects a demographic shift in the school's neighborhood with more Haitian and West Indian immigrants moving in. They want to make sure their children develop strong values and stay out of trouble, she said.
''From my perspective, we have a lot more respect and positive discipline," Wright said.