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With the winter holidays approaching, many Jewish parents – in our community and others – face the annual task of reminding our children’s teachers that not all students celebrate Christmas. Last year, when I expressed concerns about this issue to our local school superintendent, he responded with the heart of a teacher, offering me an opportunity to highlight this issue at a specially created program this year for the school district’s administrators and representatives from numerous faith communities in our area.
I jumped at the opportunity and quickly formed a small planning committee that included Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith of Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, AL, a fellow congregant, Barbara Minsky, and me. Recently, the school administrators gathered with representatives from 10 different faith communities (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Religious Science, Freethinkers, Catholic, Episcopalian, Seventh Day Adventist, and Presbyterian) for a session that was engaging and enlightening for all.
Dothan’s mayor, Mike Schmitz, always a good friend of the Jewish community and a proponent of strong inter-religious, inter-racial, and inter-cultural relationships within our community opened the program, speaking about the beauty of Dothan’s diversity and the power of community when we all work together.
I followed the mayor, providing a summary of the religious communities in our area. No one was surprised that Baptists comprise 50% of the population in our local area, but many attendees were amazed that the percentage of Catholics, at about 3%, is as high as it is and that our local Muslim community is larger than the Jewish community.
Barbara Minsky reviewed the laws governing religion in the public schools, reminding school leaders that individual students may pray in school, but teachers and administrators may not encourage religious activities by students. She also noted that although students may distribute religious literature to their peers – and even proselytize – they may not harass other students. Here in the Bible Belt, what is and isn’t permissible in this realm is of concern to all of us who belong to minority religious groups.
The various faith leaders, including clergy, parents, and community members, then spoke candidly with school administrators in small groups. Highlights of this dialogue for school leaders included:
For the faith community volunteers, the session demonstrated that school leaders are eager to know more about students’ cultures and beliefs and teachers seek to be inclusive, but sometimes they just don’t know quite where to begin.
By far, the overriding message of the gathering is that much more binds us together than separates us. I am hopeful that despite our differences, this feeling of oneness will persist and that the interfaith session will serve as a catalyst to ensure that every child in our school system feels safe and respected – during the holiday season and throughout the school year.