Being a citizen of the United States of America is a real honor and privilege. While many nations have freedoms and rights on paper, we have them in actuality. One of our most important freedoms is the freedom of religion. This is enshrined in our first Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
One of the greatest, and humbling, honors that I have received as a Rabbi, was the invitation by Congressman Brad Wenstrup to deliver the opening prayer in the “People’s House”, the House of Representatives of the United States of America. While I had led the prayer in the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate, I had never done so in our nation's capital.
It was very humbling to be able to stand at the House podium, on July 25th 2019, and say publicly “As a descendant of Jews who fled the Stalinist regime that persecuted religious observance, I am especially grateful and blessed to be in America, the country called the ‘nation of kindness.’ We thank you for the freedom we have here to practice our faith and we pray for those who still suffer persecution around the world.”
After my return from Washington D.C., I decided to research this tradition of starting each congressional session with a prayer. The same is also true of the Supreme Court of the United States, which begins each hearing with the following announcement: ‘“The Honorable Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable Supreme Court of the United States are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”
The establishment of the Chaplains office in congress and the daily prayer were among the first orders of business of the new nation. Shortly after Congress first convened in April 1789 in New York City, one of its "first orders of business" was to convene a committee to recommend a Chaplain for the United States House of Representatives. The Clerk of the House relates "The First Congress under the Constitution began on the 4th of March, 1789; but there was not a quorum for business till the 1st of April. On the 9th of that month Oliver Ellsworth was appointed, on the part of the Senate, to confer with a committee of the House on Rules, and on the appointment of chaplains.“
This made me think about the lack of prayer in all public schools. If we can pray in Congress, why can’t we have prayer in public schools? After researching the issue, I found out a few interesting facts: in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practice for public schools to open with an oral prayer or Bible reading. It was only in the landmark supreme court decision in Engel Vs. Vitale (1962), that prayer was removed from the schools.
While the merits of the decision, and how it squares with prayer in Congress and the Supreme Court itself, can be debated, the results of the decision are factual and non-debatable: the moral and ethical compass of American youth has been destroyed. There are millions of young children growing up without an awareness of a higher authority in their lives. Thus, they do not feel responsible for their actions and have lost the sensitivity for the value of life and moral honesty. The benefits of this idea are tremendous.
One of the popular ideas that have been promoted in the past years, is to mandate that all schools begin with a “Moment of Silence”. This would allow each student, based on the personal guidance of their parents, to reflect on something higher than themselves, without pushing any specific religious doctrine. While some states, like Florida, have made that mandatory, in Ohio it is allowed if the school board decides to do it.
This means that it is up to us to contact our local school boards, and people with local influence, and try to get them to initiate a discussion and decision to take advantage of the Ohio allowance for this idea. While we would rather focus on our current graduations and our summer plans, the decisions of the next year — and the effect on the next generation — happen now. Let’s all try to make a difference in the moral and ethical future of our nation.
Got a “Moment” to help? Shabbat shalom!
You can email Rabbi Gerson Avtzon at firstname.lastname@example.org.