The Jewish Voice
P.S. 191, also known as The Paul Robeson School, sits at the border of Crown Heights and Brownsville. The school’s student population, around 300 suffer from poverty to the extent that 99% of them meet the standards for free or reduced-price lunches. Some even live at a homeless shelter next door. But, at 8:30, every morning, just like clockwork, a moment of silence is observed. It may only last for one minute, but for that moment, the entire school is quiet. The moment is announced over the school’s loudspeaker system by both teachers and small number of students. In the announcement, the entire school’s population (student and faculty) is asked to think about something positive for the silent minute. It can be something like what they want to achieve that day, how they could help someone else, or whatever they like, as long as they remain entirely silent for that 60 seconds.
The positive effects of a moment of silence haven’t gone unnoticed at P.S. 191. As one supervising school aide put it, “I have seen tremendous changes behavior-wise and in terms of punctuality. The kids want to be here for the moment of silence. When they miss it, you can see they’re upset.”
The idea of the moment of silence was first introduced to P.S. 191 by a Hasidic Jew named Avraham Frank. Three years ago, he walked right into the school to speak to the school’s principal, and suggested the entire school be silent for exactly one minute in the morning. In doing so, he was honoring the wishes of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who desired that all public school have a daily moment of silence. Since then, the 59-year-old manager for home attendants for New York City’s Human Resources Administration has convinced the faculty administrators of 13 different public schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens to initiate moments of silence in their daily routines. His desire is to have moments of silence be observed at schools, “all over the city.”
The entire idea is not without controversy, however. The issue that’s standing in the way of such observances is school prayer. Prayer being initiated or sponsored by public schools has been deemed illegal ever since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1962, titled Engel vs. Vitale. The stipulation regarding prayer being, if students themselves initiate it and it remains voluntary, and private, then prayer in schools could be allowed. Otherwise, it would not. Ever since then, many in the nation have been advocating for “moments of silence” to replace school prayer. The idea being that; instead of these moments being overtly religious in nature, by simply being silent for a moment students and faculty could use the moment in whatever way they wished, whether to pray or for contemplation.
However, the controversy surrounding these moments has reared its head state by state, and they are not legal nationwide. Only 30 states have signed off on moments of silence being allowed in schools, New York State among them, according to the acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern. Mr. Stern is an expert in issues of religion and state. Elsewhere, they definitely have been deemed forbidden. Courts on the federal level have been at odds on whether or not moments of silence in public schools can be considered constitutional or not.
In Texas, a law was passed that made it mandatory for state schools to allow a moment of silence every day so that students could “reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student.” The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that the word “pray” had been allowed on the list of chosen things that students could do during the moments of silence, as that word had been deliberately left out of a previous law regarding moments-of-silence. The later law was upheld in March 2009 by judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In January of that same year, a statute allowing moments of silence in schools in Illinois was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
Avraham Frank believes that allowing moments of silence is a good solution to the forbidding of prayer in public schools. As he puts it, “This is for the good of the children, so that they grow up to be upstanding citizens of society. It encourages morality, and this is what we want to get in the schools, which is not there now since they cut out school prayer in the 1960s. These children will bring the parents back to being moral upstanding citizens. Many of the students pray during this time.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe whose wishes he is honoring had been speaking out in support of such moments of silence in schools since the early 1980’s.
This Rebbe is one of the most influential figures of all time, not only for the Jewish community but much of the rest of the world. He’s touched many people’s hearts with his kindness and determination to do good. His mission was not only his own, but everybody’s. He encouraged Jews to open Chabad houses all over the world, not only to encourage more religious observance among Jews, but to allow Jews to have a place to go when they needed help. Its always been true that a Jew dealing with hunger can go to a Chabad to get a free, warm, meal. It’s not necessary for him to be religious or even dress in appropriate attire, all he has to do is show up. The Rebbe was determined to make Jews look at other Jews who lived different lives from them with new eyes, to take a different perspective. He encouraged acceptance in the Jewish community among Jews so that everyone, religious and non-religious, may join together as one nation.