Navigate to News section

Milwaukee Jewish Federation Objects to High School Sukkah

The group pushed for student sukkah to be built off-campus this year. Why?

Yair Rosenberg
October 15, 2014
Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. (Wikipedia)
Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. (Wikipedia)

During the week-long festival of Sukkot, which is currently being celebrated by Jews around the world, observant Jews are required to eat all of their meals in the Sukkah–the temporary hut from which the holiday takes its name. This can pose problems in professional and educational settings where a Sukkah is not readily available, forcing Jews to choose between having lunch or observing their religion. Thankfully, in recent years, businesses and schools have become sensitive to this concern, and Sukkot can now be found everywhere from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Google headquarters across the globe.

But one place you won’t find a Sukkah, reports the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, is at Nicolet High School in Wisconsin, despite the fact that Jewish students built one there last year without a problem. The reason? The Milwaukee Jewish Federation objected to the hut as a violation of the “separation of church and state,” and forced it to move off campus.

This stance by the federation, backed by some students and vehemently opposed by others, raises some unsettling questions. If a Muslim pupil sought space in school for his private daily prayers, would the federation advocate against it? If a Jew sought kosher food from the school meal plan–which her family funds with their taxes–would the federation denounce her? If not, why then is the federation acting to prevent observant students from being able to eat meals at school over the holiday of Sukkot?

None of these accommodations involve inserting religion into the classroom; they simply make it possible for students to personally and voluntarily adhere to the tenets of their faith while on school grounds. Surely this is a goal that deserves the support of a Jewish communal organization, not its opposition. Indeed, if Jewish students make the effort to build their own Sukkah at their school, with the approval of the administration, isn’t this exactly the sort of youthful initiative that establishment organizations should be applauding? And shouldn’t a Jewish federation be trying to make it easier to be Jewish, not harder?

But beyond the atmosphere of exclusion fostered by the federation’s attitude, there is an equally problematic pedagogical pitfall here. Pushing religious expression off campus defeats the purpose of public education, which is to prepare students for the outside world and all of the people and ideas they will encounter there. Restricting which religious practices students may privately adhere to in school doesn’t simply inconvenience and oppress the Jewish student who needs to eat in a Sukkah or the Muslim one who requires halal food; it fosters ignorance among the rest of the student body as to the multiplicity and meaning of faith in the broader society. A school that has been scrupulously sanitized of any trace of religious expression doesn’t resemble the outside world and doesn’t prepare its diverse students to co-exist within it. Rather than teaching tolerance, it enforces conformity.

It need not be this way. A Sukkah on campus is an opportunity for others to learn about Jews and their traditions, dispelling the ignorance from which prejudice stems and replacing it with knowledge and appreciation. Expelling a Sukkah from campus, by contrast, prevents that crucial conversation from taking place.

Our public schools should be models of pluralism that teach students to accept and respect difference, not the one place in the world where it is artificially expunged. And if anyone should understand the urgent need to dignify the right of others to be different, it’s a Jewish federation.

Related: Gimme Shelter

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.