GLEN ROCK The Glen Rock School District ruled this week that including a song praising Jesus in the high school choir’s spring concert does not violate the district’s policies regarding separation of church and state.
The community has been debating the issue since earlier this month, when some Jewish choir members complained to the directors after learning that the group would sing the song "Praise His Holy Name" at its May 16 concert. The school board handed down its decision Monday in favor of the choir’s choice and emphasized that Jewish students could opt not to sing the song.
Borough resident Howard Engle said his 10th-grade daughter, who sings in the choir, was extremely upset that such a song was chosen for the concert, and he shared her concerns about the song’s appropriateness. In response, he circulated a petition calling for the song to be removed from the program, collecting the signatures of 78 students and parents.
"It appears to us to be a proselytizing prayer which is school-sponsored and [therefore] a violation of the First Amendment," he told The Jewish Standard on Wednesday.
According to a letter sent to choir students by James J. McCarthy, the high school’s principal, the Gospel song had been used by the choir in the past and was chosen in honor of Black History Month.
Engle said there had been a misunderstanding and that he and the petition’s supporters were not against Gospel and other religious-themed music. Rather, he said, the problem rests in a single verse in the song, "Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for ev’ryone and there’s a cross for me. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, how I love Thee!"
Brad Baron, the 1’th-grade president of the choir, told The Record last week that the song was presented in a secular way, but Engle said that was not correct.
"These are words that profess belief in another god, and to say, ‘It’s just a song,’ is not a true understanding from a Jewish point of view, and you can’t ask us to say them," Engle said.
Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said the school must be sensitive when there is a strong emotional response to something it presents.
"The school makes a fairly strong argument that this song is part of their curriculum and has been, as I understand it," Tow said. "At the same time, we do live in a society where we have the ability to respond when we’re uncomfortable with things. The school, to its credit, has recognized that the parents have had serious issues with this music.
"There are those who say this is a prayer-type song that perhaps some would say crosses the line of having school prayer," he continued. "At the same time, I’m also sensitive to the fact that some of the great pieces of Western music are Christian sacred music."
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center, who had been involved in the petition and school board meetings, said there were many other songs from the Christian Gospel tradition that would have been appropriate. The issue surrounding the choir selection is one of degree, he added.
"The words in this particular piece crossed a line in terms of expression of a passionate commitment to the Christian faith," he said. "These words are powerful, as they should be, because it’s a beautiful expression of Christian faith."
While he said he understands and respects the final decision of the school board to keep the song, it puts the Jewish members of the choir in an awkward position to be told that the song will be sung by soloists and whoever would like to join in may do so.
"The bottom line is the Jewish children will be marginalized," he said.
Glen Rock Superintendent George Connelly said on Wednesday that he was happy to see 50 students at Monday’s meeting and noted that the important thing for them to learn is to respect the different opinions of others.
"It’s a matter of disagreeing in an agreeable way," he said. "If the students choose not to participate, we will respect that," he added, while agreeing with the final decision to include the song.
Addressing Steinlauf’s claim that the decision even though well-intentioned would marginalize Jewish students, Connelly said that teachers would take the utmost care to handle the song in a sensitive fashion with students who choose not to participate. But, he added, because of the nature of the concert and the presentation of the song, it is appropriate for the school.
"We’re performing a song," he said. "It’s a performance, it’s not necessarily expressing a belief."