Orna Raz

The Curious Case Of The “P” In PTA — Parent Or Prayer?

My daughters spent the last night in the US, in Iowa City, with a good friend. Later she told me that in preparation for the long journey back to Israel she had baptized the girls– just in case.  I felt that it was a bit extreme but said nothing, I knew that it was an act of love and did not want to hurt my friend’s feelings.

Less than a year later we found ourselves back in the US, this time my husband was hired sight unseen by a large company which moved us from Israel to Texas. His lab was outside Fort Worth, and we settled in a nearby town, in a good school district. Our daughters went to the elementary public school down the road and I, an involved parent, joined the PTA.

In the first Parent Teacher Association meeting I was quite taken aback upon hearing one of the parents, a minister, start the meeting with a public prayer. It wasn’t an ecumenical one,  but rather a prayer with explicit Christian references.

Israel as a Jewish state, has no separation of  Church and State, but in secular schools public I was not used to hearing prayers on school grounds. Since I knew that separation of Church and State was one of the corner stones of the US,  I assumed that it was an honest mistake which would be rectified.  I was certain that the educators and the management staff of our school would be committed to the principles of the Founding Fathers and to the Constitution.

I asked the  principal about it, she told me that the minister always started the PTA  meetings with a public prayer, and  unless I insisted she would rather not say anything to him as to not hurt his feelings. I didn’t mention my feelings, at that moment I realized that she had no idea what it meant for me as an Israeli/American Jew to be at a general meeting in a public school and to be part of a public prayer to Christ.

I didn’t insist; my daughters were happy in the school and in my experience children do not like their parents to make a fuss, to be considered trouble makers. In general they feel more comfortable if their parents behave and conform.  I tried to find a way which could reconcile their unease with my conviction that religious prayers should remain outside the school.  I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory solution, so I decided to let the matter drop, left the PTA and continued to volunteer in my daughters’ classes.

Like my (lack of) response to the baptizing friend, the principal of the school wanted to spare another person’s feelings. However, in doing so she betrayed her role as an educator.There is a big difference between being tolerant to an individual blunder and condoning public disregard of the law.

Separation of Church and State is a boon for a nation- a sign of enlightenment. But, if religion is allowed into the public school, then it undermines the very core of that separation. Because of the sensitivity of the issue and the history of the US, it is not an easy law to enforce. It takes a genuine belief in its significance, commitment to make it work, tolerance and sensitivity to all in order for separation between State and Church to really happen. In Texas not hurting a fellow Christian was a more important principle than the abstract law which separates Church and State.

We regarded this incident as a warning sign and at the first opportunity left Texas and returned to Israel.


About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. .