Creating a Welcoming School Environment for Students of Diverse Religions

Religious symbols courtesy of cliparts

(The following is the text of remarks that I made as a member of a panel sponsored by the Parent Diversity Advisory Council of the Indian Prairie School District 204. The panel was on creating a welcoming school environment for students of diverse religions. It took place on March 18, 2015) 

Thank you for inviting me to be a member of this panel to
discuss a most important subject.
What comes to your mind when you think about being
“welcoming”? What comes to my mind is being respected, valued and wanted.
How do schools create an environment where people of all faiths feel respected,
valued and wanted? How do schools create an environment where even people of no
particular faith feel also feel respected, valued and wanted? How do schools create
an environment where people who do not believe in G-d at all feel respected, valued
and wanted as well?
When we feel welcome, we are relaxed, we feel comfortable, and
we are at ease. The minute we feel uneasy, it is a sign that there is a

The first step in creating a welcoming environment is to be
keenly aware, on an individual basis, of the assumptions we have about each
other. What stereotypes of people of faith do we, consciously or subconsciously,
hold?  Community meetings like the one we
are holding here this evening help to raise these issues. It also helps a great
deal in beginning to break down our assumptions about “the other”.  We can, for example, begin a conversation with
people of other faiths. Maybe this will lead to going for a walk or sharing a
meal. Getting to know one another personally helps to remedy the very human tendency
to pre-judge the “other” based on their religion, race, or ethnicity.
The Academic study of religion in the public schools can
also serve to create a welcoming environment for students. Ignorance and
misunderstanding of religion is one of the primary causes of prejudice and
hatred toward people of faith, and toward atheists. However, careful thought
and consideration ought to be given to how religion is going to be taught.  According to A Teacher’s Guide to Religion
in the Public Schools
, published by the First Amendment Center, the study
of religion within the classroom should be academic, not devotional; its goal
should be to make students aware of religious beliefs but not to make them
accept religious beliefs; it should expose them to ideas but not impose ideas
upon them; it needs to educate about religious beliefs, not denigrate or
promote them. The study of religion in the classroom should inform and educate
students about various beliefs, not pressure students to conform to particular sets
of beliefs.

Teachers also need to make students feel welcome and
unafraid in their classrooms. I had a parent of one of our synagogue students
call me one afternoon. Her daughter came home very upset from school that day.
The teacher was teaching the class about Judaism and said something about her
religion with which the student disagreed. This was right out of the textbook,
yet, in the student’s experience, it did not accurately represent Judaism. She
did not feel comfortable going up to the teacher after class, or raising her
hand, to voice her discomfort with what was being taught. Perhaps she was
simply too shy, or, perhaps there was something in the class environment that
made her feel unsafe about speaking up. Teachers who are teaching religion in
the classroom need to say to their students something along the lines of “Please
come up and talk to me if there is something that I am are teaching that does
not conform to what you were taught in your religious education.”
Another thing to be aware of is that, when a student or a
parent brings up an issue that touches on religion that makes them feel
uncomfortable, it is important to take their discomfort seriously. We need to
be alert that we do not dismiss or downplay their concerns. On the other hand,
I cannot tell you how affirming it is when teachers or principals understand and
take a firm action, when, for example there is an anti-Semitic incident on school
grounds. Sensitivity of teachers and principals is crucial in developing a
welcoming atmosphere. Sadly, prejudice will always exist in the world. We can
only ask that the leaders in our schools take a firm stand against those behaviors
which attack or devalue the religious beliefs, practices, or religious history
of our students.

It falls on each and every single one of us — each
administrator, each parent, each teacher and each student — to make the school
a safe and welcoming place for all.  Let
us ask ourselves – what would we do if we are in a group and we witness someone
making a disparaging remark against someone else based on their religion?  Do we ignore it? Walk away? Pretend we did
not hear? Laugh at it, however anxiously and uncomfortably? Or do we,
respectfully say something to the person and to the group, letting them know
that we are uncomfortable with their remarks? 

As a Rabbi, I can think of several ways that school can work
to make Jewish students and their families feel welcome.

First, we must be aware that Jewish students hold a variety
of beliefs and observe Jewish practice in different ways. We ought not make
assumptions about a student’s belief or level of knowledge or practice based on
the fact that they identify as being Jewish. For example, some Jewish people
follow dietary laws, others don’t. Some worship regularly, others don’t. Again
I need to emphasize that the caution not to make assumptions applies to
students of all religions and to students of no religion.
Second, the Jewish calendar can be complicated for an
outsider to understand. For example, our holidays start at sundown on the day
before they are printed on a calendar. 
So if one looks at a calendar from, say, Jewel-Osco, and it says that
Passover is on Saturday, it means that Friday evening is the actual start of
the Holiday and the time of the first Seder. There are a few holidays when all
of our students, no matter what their level of adherence to Jewish life is,
will need to worship with their families. The school could be welcoming by
doing two things – not scheduling important school events or tests on a major
Jewish holiday, and allowing students to hand in assignments a day later if due
on a major holiday.

Here is an example:  I
received a call from the activity director at local High School. They are
scheduling for 2016 and saw that Passover fell on April 23 or that year. Would
it be OK to schedule a major school event the night before? That would be a
problem for us, I replied, since the night before, the evening of April 22, is
the night of the first Passover Seder, an important time for families to
gather. What about a field trip that day, on April 22? That would be fine, as
long as the students return to the school by about 5 pm, so they can get home and
get prepared for their seders.
This all goes to say – do not hesitate to reach out and to ask
for my guidance around scheduling or any other matter with regard to Jewish
students and the Jewish religion. Clergy of all faiths are important resources
for schools when dealing with the issues around making schools welcoming places
for people of faith. I welcome your reaching out to me with any questions or
concerns that you might have. Thank you.
Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph