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There's Still Christianity in the Public Schools?

Jewish public school students down South contend with missionary classmates

By Jan Jaben-Eilon,, October 2, 2012

Photo from "Tri-County GO TELL Crusade," held in a high school stadium in Anderson County, South Carolina in 2012. According to Go Tell's website, the crusade included Go Tell presentations at 12 schools "on the dangers of sex, alcohol and drug abuse. [Go Tell founder Rick] Gage also brought with him a BMX bike team to entertain the students."

It's not easy growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt, although Jewish youth report that their Christian classmates in public high schools can often be caring - in their own way. "A lot of classmates said they'd pray for me since I was going to hell because I'm Jewish," said Hanna, now a college sophomore. "Once I was asked if I had horns or had shaved them down," recalls Jane, who attended a different public high school in the metropolitan Atlanta area. "The kids weren't mean. One said that it was so cool that I was Jewish, and asked if I was thinking about converting. Her tone changed, though, when I told her I wouldn't convert."

Another student recalled, "One of my best friends belonged to an evangelical Christian church and she tried to get me to go to church with her, not very subtlety. Just after she returned from a religious retreat, she told me that I should accept Jesus because 'I don't want you to go to hell.' I responded that I'm Jewish and that's it. She never mentioned it again. But there was another sweet girl and it got back to me that she said it was too bad that I was going to hell because she really liked me." What partly bothered this former student was the sheer "innocence" of the comment: "That's what she was taught."

All three of these former high school students were raised with a strong Jewish foundation so they were not easily tempted by the proselytizing peer pressure from the public school pupils surrounding them. But for more vulnerable, less knowledgeable Jewish youth, the attempts to draw them to Jesus can be jarring - and sometimes, even successful.

Some children lost to conversion
"We have a struggle in the Jewish community," says Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, a northern suburb of Atlanta. "Parents send their kids to religious school, but don't want them to be religious. Then parents come to me" when their child is tempted by their Christian peers, and "usually by the time they tell me, it's too late." Too late? "We have lost some of the kids of our congregants" to conversion, he admits, solemnly. "It's a painful thing for the families."

Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, Georgia.

While few other rabbis we contacted reported similar disheartening consequences of susceptible youth being exposed to aggressive evangelical friends, there is a real problem in the public schools in the Southeast. "I'm encountering it far more here than in New York or Connecticut," says Greene, who previously worked in congregations in those states.

"This is the most religiously diverse country in the world, with more churches per person," says Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia. "It's a rare month that we don't get at least one student complaining about proselytizing in a public school."

Southern culture of religion
Shelley Rose, associate director of the Southeast office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), attributes the fact that she gets calls regularly about the same issues, to the culture of religion in the South. "And it happens in the metro Atlanta area, not just in the rural areas," she says.

But what are the issues emanating out of the public schools in the increasingly evangelical South? Although it's prevalent, proselytizing by other students in the public schools isn't the only religious reminder that Jewish youth are in a minority and cannot ever truly be a part of their peer group.

"It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a 'blessed day'. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you," says Jane. "I have a friend who introduces me as her 'Jewish friend, Jane'. It's always in your face. Not a day goes by that I'm not reminded that I'm a Jew."

And Jane has something to compare this experience with. She moved from heavily Jewish South Florida when she was 12 years old. "I never knew I was in a minority in South Florida; it was so normal. My friends were either Jewish or understood what that meant. In Georgia, there were classmates who had never met a Jew before."

Jane's mother, Barbara, recalls how difficult those years were for Jane. "She really had to fight for her identity to be Jewish and she'd never had to do that before. She would come home upset with her little voice, but I have a much bigger, louder voice."

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Jan Jaben-Eilon is a long-time journalist who has written for The New York Times, Business Week, the International Herald Tribune, the Jerusalem Report and Womenetics. She was a founding reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and was international editor for Advertising Age before she fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Israel. Jan and her Jerusalem-born husband have an apartment in that city, but live in Atlanta.

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