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Schools Should Not Be Factories

And Mayor Eric Adams is following the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s model in making that distinction clear

Tamara Mann Tweel
September 05, 2023

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This September, 61 years after the Supreme Court banned school prayer, New York City public school students will once again open each school day with an ancient invocation. For two to five minutes a day, children across the city will practice, with trained educators, the art of breathing. New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced the initiative at P.S. 5 in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, where three elementary school students led elected officials, journalists, and their principal in six deep breaths of the ocean-sound variety. First, the students explained, you breathe in through your nose; then, you breathe out through your mouth to create a prolonged whisper.

While much of the press has maligned Adams for introducing this respiratory ritual into the education system, the mayor is revisiting an essential question: How should students start a day of school?

This is especially urgent as America’s schools have become increasingly charged spaces. Schools close after mass shootings, after egregious acts of cyberbullying, after bad water or air reports. Sometimes they close after suicides. How should students begin a day of learning in the midst of so much fear and uncertainty?

For most of American history, whether young children were educated in their home or, from the mid-1800s, in the new institution of common schools, students began their day in prayer. Words from the Lord’s Prayer or biblical passages from the ubiquitous McGuffey Reader would be recited in unison. Parents sent their children to school to learn reading, penmanship, and arithmetic but also for moral and civic instruction. Morning prayer introduced the purpose of the education to follow: to elevate and form the character of each student. Not surprisingly, prayer was also used as a weapon, deployed for decades to compel Catholic students to utter the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and read the King James Bible rather than their own Douay-Rheims Bible.

The purpose of public education evolved in the 20th century, particularly in cities where immigrants of multiple denominations and faiths came together. For many, the school became a site for economic advancement, a place where minds were sorted. As consensus around the moral goal of education diminished, the value of education as the engine of meritocratic advancement grew in importance.

In the 20th century, Jewish students, parents, and teachers joined Catholics in voicing deep discomfort in the way Protestant Christian practice, particularly recitations of the King James Bible, launched the school day. For a brief time, Jewish communities offered a vision of a public school filled with multiple forms of religious practice enacted through “designated released time.” Eventually the community replaced that vision with a belief that full equality for American Jews hinged on a public school emptied of religious practice altogether.

An educational system must have a soul. Children are not computers to be fed a mass of informational data, without regard for their human needs for higher goals and ideals in life.

The prayer that would finally end school prayer contained 22 words: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.” A priest, a rabbi, and a minister co-authored the prayer on behalf of a New York educational bureaucracy called the Board of Regents, best known today for administering standardized tests. The religious trio sought to create a nondenominational prayer—one that evoked a codified American civic tradition grounded in monotheism but without endorsing a particular religious denomination.

In December 1951, the New York Board of Regents announced the optional prayer, confident in its ability to foster nondenominational religious sentiment among students from different faiths. It did not anticipate the nation-splitting controversy that followed.

On July 8, 1958, the Herrick school board agreed that the Regents Prayer would be recited at the opening of the school day. While students diluted the efficacy of what the New York Mirror called “the quickie prayer” with irreverent laughter, mumbling, or just opting out, parents took a more definitive route.  Chief among them was Lawrence Roth. Roth was born Jewish and moved to Long Island during a wave of recent Jewish migration. As a 10-year-old boy, Roth had lived through the antisemitic murder of his brother, who was chased by young men screaming “Get the Jew!” and thrown out of a moving car. According to the historian Bruce J. Dierenfield, this experience distanced Roth from his Jewish faith while inspiring a commitment to political action. When he heard about the new prayer, he brought a lawsuit against the district and, based on advice from his lawyers, recruited neighbors as co-plaintiffs. Steve Engel, whose last name would soon become synonymous with the end of school prayer, happened to live next door.

This instigated Engel v. Vitale, one of most divisive Supreme Court cases in American history. For the plaintiffs, this was a case to preserve the liberties of their children and protect them from state-sanctioned religious coercion. They sought to protect students of all faiths—and non-faiths—from dangerous interference from the state. As the case made its way through the courts, the organized Jewish community, with only rare exceptions, came out loudly in support of the plaintiffs. Organizations like the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and the Synagogue Council of America argued that prayer should remain in the domain of the home and the house of worship, and kept out of public spaces.

The Catholic community split with the Jewish community over this case, overwhelmingly supporting the inclusion of the Regents Prayer. Despite decades of enforced denominational practice at the hands of public schools, many in the Catholic community argued that in the 1960s the real threat to religion and America was not denominationalism but rather secularism and Godlessness. On June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and declared that prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. As one influential Texas Republican remarked, the court “kicked God out of the public schools.”

One exception to Jewish organizations’ general support of the court’s decision came from Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, began speaking out in support of the New York Regents prayer. The Rebbe had escaped Europe for America in 1941 and assumed leadership of the Lubavitch movement in 1950. From the start, the Rebbe created an ambitious policy agenda for what the authors of the book Social Vision describe as an “expansive concept of education” for all Jews and residents of the country he made his home.

The Rebbe had a vision for what education must do for America’s children. He wrote, “An educational system must have a soul. Children are not computers to be fed a mass of informational data, without regard for their human needs for higher goals and ideals in life.” In 1962 and 1964, following the court’s decision, the Rebbe penned two letters in support of the nondenominational Regents Prayer. He argued that prayer was essential, “to impress upon the minds of our growing-up generation that the world in which they live is not a jungle, where brute force, cunning and unbridled passion rule supreme, but that it has a Master Who is not an abstraction, but a personal G-d; that this Supreme Being takes a ‘personal interest’ in the affairs of each and every individual ...”

The eradication of nondenominational prayer without a thoughtful ritual substitution also had costs. The Rebbe argued in those letters that a loss of a higher purpose of education would lead to increased violence, as “disillusionment, insecurity and confusion” destabilized young people’s belief in themselves and their future. Elimination could also lead to a political environment where powerful groups would try to insert denominational practice back into the school day.

When prayer left the classroom, what took its place? For many students across the country over the last 60 years, the day has begun with the school bell, a clang more redolent of the factory floor than its origins in the church bell. The day proceeds with constant movement, academic sorting, and competition. Some students win and other students lose. There is little opportunity to do something that reminds each student that they are valued for contributing to a greater whole.

In the 1980s, the Rebbe moved beyond school prayer while still actively investing in the moral purpose of education, advocating for a new way to start the school day: with a moment of silence. A daily act of quiet reflection, he explained, could even be preferable to nondenominational prayer—a silent opportunity for students to connect to themselves, their parents, and the goals of education.

Prayer, silence, and breath all transcend a singular instrumental purpose. These techniques can calm the body, elevate the mind, quiet anxiety, and inspire gratitude. They can be done in private, anchoring the self, but they can also be done together in public, forging community. For the last 60 years, the legal story of prayer in schools has overdetermined a conversation that centers on what is or is not allowed in school. A different conversation must be had today: What is the highest purpose of education and what must we do as a society to orient each school day to reach that highest purpose?

It is easy to dismiss the inclusion of breathing in New York City public schools. It can seem like a cheap Band-Aid for life-threatening challenges that our society will simply not confront or pay for. But when you educate you also create a new society. Breathing together in a room can make all students feel that they are present for an education that will help them flourish as human beings in a community. In a society so isolating and splintering as ours, we might all benefit from the experience of one free, oceanlike breath in unison.

Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel writes about religion and education. She is a Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.