The Jewish Week
The teacher turns out the light. The fifth-grade students fold their arms on their shared worktables and cradle their heads. There is no fidgeting or giggling. For exactly 60 seconds all is quiet.
It all adds up to one minute of literally nothing. And it’s a model of activity (or inactivity) that’s inching its way through classrooms inside as well as outside the New York City public school system.
It’s called ‘a moment of silence’, and it’s a steadily growing global phenomenon. The scene above repeats daily at Crown Heights’ P.S. 191, as well as scores of other minority student-dominated public schools inside New York City. The prime mover for the program at P.S. 191 as well as other participating city schools is Avraham Frank, a 64-year-old retired municipal worker-turned-substitute teacher. And his motivations are distinctly Jewish.
Frank, a member of Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher community, attributes his mission to the preaching’s of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
“The Rebbe said that whoever practices ‘a moment of silence’ will enjoy a blessing in all their studies,” Frank said.
According to Frank, the Rebbe decried the shortcomings of parental instruction inside the homes of American families. He proposed the moment of silence as one remedy.
Teachers encourage students to think about their relationships with their families in their one-minute reflections. In addition, they are encouraged to discuss and expand on their silent minutes with their parents.
“The parents are the key element,” Frank said. “From there the bonding process extends to the kids’ siblings.”
Frank’s moments of silence are riding a by-now familiar trend at schools around the country of inner-directed exercises aimed at even very young children. Many of these courses draw on yoga practices and guided meditation pulling strongly from non-Western sources.
Frank denies that his secular-rooted moments of silence are a long-range stalking horse for restoring prayer in public schools. School prayer was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court decades ago but was favored by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a nondenominational form. The Rebbe conceived the moment of silence as the next best option.
Frank points out that the moments bear a secularized kinship to one key byproduct of chasidic devotion, the cultivated state of reflective quietude known as “hisbonanus.”
Perhaps the closest Frank’s program comes to any hint of religious belief is in a point of family discussion proposed in one of his promotional brochures: “There is something within me that is bigger than me.”
Speaking from a constitutional perspective, Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s program for freedom of religion and belief, deems such a point of advice “not appropriate.”
Overall, however, he said of moments of silence in general and Frank’s version in particular, “If religion is not endorsed, it should not be a problem.”
Frank’s goal, since he launched his campaign in 2002, has been to move local education systems, starting with New York City’s, to mandate moments of silence throughout its schools. Inside New York, Frank is slowly rounding up allies in the city’s Department of Education and the City Council. In the meantime, he’s confidently peddling his program one school at a time and achieving limited but notable success.
“It sells itself,” he said. “The kids love it.”
A written statement from the Department of Education says: “Principals are empowered to make decisions they feel best serve their students on these matters.”
Frank estimates that globally 1,100 schools conduct moments of silence in large part because of his efforts, including 800 schools in South Africa.
In New York City up to 60 schools participate, virtually all as a result of Frank’s activism.
Private schools have also started programs, including parochial Catholic schools, after Frank’s campaigning.
While in office, former New York City Council member Lewis Fidler introduced a resolution supporting Frank’s moment of silence program. “It never even reached the committee,” he said.
He said fellow council members backed away, citing the proposal’s thorny church vs. state implications.
But Fidler, now in private legal practice, remains a true believer.
“The moments of silence are very effective at starting students on a path of reflection, particularly among the younger kids,” he said. “It doesn’t require prayer, but it’s OK if students do choose to pray. In the same way it’s also OK if they want to reflect if the Mets will be any good this year.”
Most recently, due in large part to Frank’s efforts, Arkansas lawmakers mandated a moment of silence throughout the state’s primary school system, as has Florida’s Dade County.
He estimates that U.S. schools running moments of silence from a variety of initiatives run into the tens of thousands.
He has contributed to the push to bring the moments to girls’ yeshivas inside Israel, which he says has lately begun to gain traction.
He also expects the program will be implemented in the Philippines, thanks to the efforts of Filipino allies who have joined other non-Jews around the world in a pledge to observe the biblical Noachite laws as interpreted by Maimonides and popularized by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Frank has added his own innovations to the mix: letters written to parents by students dwelling on thoughts raised during their moments of silence, plus certificates and prizes granted to students at school assemblies for those who take the exercise most to heart.
Stoop-shouldered and genial, Frank sells his moments of silence like he teaches his classes. “You give warmth, you get warmth,” he said. “You get to spread some morality.”
Even though Frank is not ordained, with his yarmulke and long white beard, virtually all students and teachers persist in calling him “Rabbi Frank.”
He works without a supporting staff or direct financial remuneration beyond his classroom time as a substitute teacher. He pays for his shoestring campaign (momentofsilence.info) via phone, email, snail mail, brochure handouts and DVDs almost entirely out of his own pocket.
Frank backs up his sales pitch with scientific opinion, such as one study of moments of silence from the Georgia Institute for Prevention of Human Diseases and Accidents that pointed to “the potential beneficial impact on blood pressure and heart rate” on young people.
“I can’t say that I have done intensive investigation of how schools are doing with the program,” noted Israel Kalman, a school psychologist and director of Bullies to Buddies, a victim empowerment organization, “but as far as I can tell from what Avraham has passed on to me, every school that is using it is loving it.”
Most of all, Frank believes the challenges of contemporary schooling and family life are making his message heard.
For evidence he points to a typical morning at P.S. 191.
The moment of silence launches the school day, as it has since 2007, following a building-wide announcement over the public address system by the principal.
“Personally I love it,” said Sonia Witter-Clue, a P.S. 191 teacher’s aide. “It prepares the kids for what to think about for the rest of the day. It gives them a new outlook”
Second grader Jahir said he uses the time to “think about people,” such as a favored and deceased uncle.
“I think about how to achieve my goals in school and at home,” said fourth grader Ayonna, “and I think about how to succeed in life.”
Esther Davis, a teacher and coordinator of the moment of silence at the school, said, “With all their electronic distractions kids are over-stimulated. This gives them a chance to slow down and think.”