Prayer in schools – A Jew’s story

With all the fuss lately regarding prayer in schools, I’ve been doing some thinking about what it was like for me back in my secondary school days.

I went to Wellington College, a decile 10 state-school that tried its hardest to pretend it was an expensive private school. To give an example of what I mean, we weren’t allowed mufti days because it would “ruin the school’s reputation”.

Twice a week, we would have assemblies. As the school hall wasn’t big enough for the whole school, one year level would have their own assembly in a separate hall, on rotation. The circumstances from full assemblies to year assemblies was slightly different, with regards to the level of Christianity that was pushed upon us, but both involved it.

In the school assemblies, the whole school was to stand and recite the Lord’s prayer. This was lead by the head prefect – at the time I thought it was just a quirk, but now it seems that it may have been to get around the laws regarding prayer in schools. Additionally, we would sing one or two hymns, always of a Christian nature. In the year level assemblies neither of these occurred, but once every term or two we would be addressed by a “guest speaker” – a Christian who would discuss Jesus with us, and hand out free copies of the Christian Bible at the end of the assembly.

In the school assemblies, the pressure on all the students to recite the Lord’s prayer was intense. If you stood silent, the teachers would stare intensely at you, making sure you knew they disapproved. On a couple of occasions, I was actually confronted by teachers demanding to know why I wasn’t reciting the prayer with the rest of the school! In addition, the intense peer pressure that always exists at high school from the other students was ever present in this case.

How did I react? For a time I remained silent, but stood. After a decent length of time at the school, however, the pressure got to me, and I felt forced to mouth along silently with the prayer simply so I wouldn’t be noticed. I can recall at least one other Jewish student and one Hindu student that dealt with the intense pressure the same way, and also mouthed along with this Christian prayer. I did the same with the hymns.

A short time later, I began instead reciting the Shema during assembly. The Shema is one of the most important prayers in Jewish liturgy, and could possibly be referred to as the Jewish version of the Lord’s prayer. Well, to be fair, it should be said that the Lord’s prayer is the Christian version of the Shema, as the Shema came far earlier. I did this despite already calling myself an atheist, with a strong non-belief in God, simply because the pressure was so great. I guess I figured if I was going to recite something I didn’t agree with, at least it should be from my own culture. Still, the though of an atheist proclaiming “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (translation of the first line of the Shema) is a little odd, to say the least.

Now that I’m a little more mature, and a lot more politically aware, the fact that I was coerced into that situation makes me really angry. Wellington College, a state run school, had no right to force one religion upon all its students to the exclusion of all others. As far as I know, they probably still do.

13 Responses to Prayer in schools – A Jew’s story

  1. I am compiling a blogroll of atheists and agnostics. Do you consider yourself to be in either of these categories? And if so, would you like to be added to the blogroll?

  2. Idiot/Savant says:

    Might as well add me in the atheist category…

  3. Asher says:

    Yeah, feel free to add me as an atheist :)

  4. Idiot/Savant says:

    have you thought of using the OIA to learn about their official policy? Schools are public bodies and bound by the Act, and finding out whether they’ve changed or the origins of the policy could be enlightening…

  5. Asher says:

    Thats a good idea. Might have to do that :)

  6. Rich says:

    I’m an agnostic. Just because I guess its not irrational to believe that some agency might have created energy / matter, until a reasonable alternative comes along. Everything post the Big Bang is the work of physics though.

  7. Greg says:

    I too stood silently throughout both the prayer, and the hymns. Indeed I was challenged on it by a prefect and told them to fuck off.
    It is a terrible situation to be in, and someone it might be time people did something about it.
    Anyone want to co-ordinate a mass letter writing to Maharey?

  8. Jack says:

    Get over it.

  9. GeniusNZ says:

    Ifail to see the great harm, basically you recited some words that some people think have power and meaning and you and the rest think mean nothing. In that sense they benefit and it costs you nothing (any more than singing some classical song or a school song in it’s place).

    But I guess if it makes you feel good to be indignant then go for it.
    As to mouthing – that is fine also – often I’d mouth songs in assembly simply because singing takes effort that I dont have an infinite amount of.

  10. Anita says:

    At Wellington Girls in the 80s we were read, at school assembly, the OT version of the Book of Esther.

    There are so many things which make that so very weird before one even starts to consider that it’s a state school.

  11. vivster81 says:

    beepbeepitsme: feel free to add my blog to your roll too :-)

  12. vivster81 says:

    also… sorry, meant to say… WOW I went to a Catholic school so couldn’t really complain haha, but I would’ve definitely gotten uppity if I was a State School and they made me do that, and now I have children, I will definitely be monitoring that situation

  13. nic says:

    I went to cole, and found their take on enforcing Christian values on the boys quite average (compared with another high school I went to previously, senile priest and all).

    While I think it’s good to take some of the more socially acceptable religious values that are out there, like treating others as you’d like to be treated, the whole ‘you’re a sinner so repent’ was always lost on me.

    College is there to assist in shaping young adults as well as passing on knowledge, I fail to see how out dated fictional rhetoric helps foster individualism and new ideas.

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