A Call for True Religious Inclusivity at JBS

A Call for True Religious Inclusivity at JBS

Gabe Fleisher, Executive Editor-in-Chief

Since its inception, John Burroughs School has always been a non-religious institution. “Burroughs was founded,” the school’s website reads, “by a group of parents, Christians and Jews, who wanted an independent, non-sectarian school.”

And for the most part, from my perspective, the school has done an admirable job of upholding that secular tradition passed down from its founders, except for one glaring exception each year.

As a Jew growing up in 21st-century America, I have been lucky to experience relatively few episodes of religious discrimination in my lifetime. While Christians are generally the majority in most spaces I inhabit — and references to Christian holidays are ubiquitous in our culture — rarely have I been actively made out to feel as “other” because of my differing belief system.

But surely one such time was having to choose in Middle School choir classes whether to sing about Christmas and Jesus Christ — a holiday and religious figure to which I feel no connection — as part of the annual JBS “Holiday Program,” or sit in the hallway as my classmates watched me, the lone dissenting Jew in the class, through an open door.

By the time I entered Burroughs as a seventh grader, the school had already rebranded the “Christmas Pageant” as the “Holiday Program” and made changes to ensure that participation would be optional, not required, for students. But mere months after I started at JBS, having just arrived at the school knowing almost no one, the experience of removing myself from class each day, sitting quietly at a table in the hallway, solely because of my religion was incredibly uncomfortable.

I was told by a teacher at the time to treat it as a “learning experience.” But why should I, already in a religious minority, have to learn about Christmas — a holiday you can’t grow up in America without being reminded of each winter — but my peers didn’t have to learn at all about Hanukkah or any other faith traditions?

That non-Christian students must make the choice of removing themselves from a class at all (which they must take for a music credit) is simply incompatible with Burroughs’s claims to be religiously accepting. Last year, for the first time, I went to see the “Holiday Program” for myself. I remember wondering to myself as I took my seat if I would feel silly after leaving: if after years of complaining about the event, I would actually not be offended by it at all, having been promised by countless faculty members and students that it had been entirely de-Christianized. Instead, I felt just as angry as I had been sitting alone in the hallway during Choir classes.

At least nine songs out of the 16 songs performed had explicit references to God, Jesus Christ, or Christmas, in addition to a Bible reading and a Tableau scene that was obviously a thinly-veiled portrayal of the Nativity scene. The other, not explicitly Christian songs made no mention of the other holidays that take place at the same time, which many Burroughs students observe.

Burroughs is a private school, and that gives it great leeway to enforce any religious beliefs it chooses: the separation of church and state that is held as a standard in public schools does not apply here. But, independently of any legal statute, Burroughs has chosen to hold itself to its own non-religious standard, one that it trumpets as a selling point in promotional materials. However, if it is built into the curriculum that months of class time is being used to sing songs about Christianity — without acknowledging any other religious traditions — than that standard is plainly being ignored.  If these songs focus on just one holiday, it is not a “Holiday Program” at all. It is still a Christmas pageant, plain and simple.

A member of the Burroughs administration once attempted to assuage my protestations by comparing the concert to a school field trip visiting the Sistine Chapel: its art may be religious in nature, but can’t people of all faiths go and appreciate its beauty? That comparison always nagged at me. To me, the “Holiday Program” is not akin to asking students to visit the Sistine Chapel, but to encouraging them to go and then kneel down in prayer there.

The holidays should be a time when everyone comes together, not when we are painfully reminded of our differences by being banished to a hallway. I am often told when I bring up the “Holiday Program” that “no solution will please everybody.” That may be true. But it seems obvious to me that there are solutions that would live up to Burroughs’ values and not require any students to literally check their faith at the classroom door or feel uncomfortable because of their religion. Practicing for the concert could be an extracurricular activity, so class time isn’t used to prepare for this plainly religious festivity, or songs from other faith traditions could be added.

Or, Burroughs could scrap the concert altogether — parting with tradition, yes — but also holding true to what the school has long claimed to be, a place where people of all beliefs and walks of life can learn together in harmony. If alumni or donors want to come together for an annual concert dedicated to their specific religion, they should look instead to a church or one of the many Christian high schools in the area.

Next holiday season, Burroughs should not just “talk the talk” — or perhaps more appropriately, “sing the song” — of religious acceptance. We should proudly “walk the walk” as well.