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Church, State, and Sukkot at a Public High School

Decision to build student sukkah off-campus shows democracy at its best

Marjorie Ingall
October 15, 2014
Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. (Wikipedia)
Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. (Wikipedia)

I hate to take vehement issue with a fellow Tablet writer. But earlier today, my colleague Yair Rosenberg reported that the Milwaukee Jewish Federation “forced” the removal of a Sukkah from the courtyard of a local high school on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state. (The sukkah was eventually built nearby, at a private home, off school property.) Yair argued that the Federation’s stance goes against the values Jewish communal organizations should be working for. I couldn’t disagree more. (Full disclosure: I’m familiar with Nicolet High School; my husband went there. Go Knights!)

First off, it’s vital to note that it was Jewish students who asked the Federation’s Community Relations Council to approach the principal. As senior Hannah Paley put it, “We felt like, if people put up a Christmas tree or Nativity scene, we’d feel uncomfortable with that, so why would we have a sukkah? It would be very easy for it to go the opposite way in a predominantly Christian country.” Indeed, as I wrote earlier this year, I was uncomfortable with my daughter’s public school teacher’s desire to read The Polar Express, a Christmas story starring Santa Claus, to the class. I told him I was uneasy, and he immediately chose a different book. (Thanks, Colin!) What grounds would I have to complain about Santa if I insisted on building a sukkah in the school playground?

You may say, eh, so let everybody celebrate their religion in public schools! But the founders of our country disagreed. Separation of church and state has served Jews very well over the course of American history. And once you open the door to religion in school, it’s hard to close. Do we want to have to give intelligent design equal weight with evolution in science classes?

Most importantly, in this case, the kids still have access to a sukkah. It’s just not on school grounds. And this solution was suggested by one of the original organizers of the sukkah-at-Nicolet group, showing excellent collaborative and problem-solving skills.

I’m grateful to the Federation for making sure the laws of our country are respected. Right-wing writers have shrieked that the Federation denies Jews a sukkah while supporting the building of a local mosque. Uh, yes. Because the mosque is not on the grounds of a public school.

Milwaukee has two Orthodox Jewish high schools: Chabad’s Hillel High School and Torah Academy of Milwaukee. Kids whose families decry the separation of secular and religious education would certainly be welcome there. (Milwaukee also has a highly regarded, non-denominational Jewish Day School for K-8 students.) And Jews are hardly a persecuted minority at Nicolet! My husband estimates that 40 percent of his graduating class was Jewish.

It’s unfortunate that this incident is being blown into a thing. What happened was this: Some Jewish students wanted the law of the land to be respected. They asked for adult intercession from fellow Jews. The Federation, the principal, the students who wanted a sukkah in their public school, and the students who didn’t all worked together to find a mutually agreeable solution. This is how democracy should work.

Indeed, as George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport in 1790, in a letter extolling the separation of church and state and the right for all Americans to practice their religion privately, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.” The citizens of Nicolet, and their adult helpers, similarly deserve applause.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.