Frum schools balk at new religious culture course

MONTREAL — Some of Montreal’s traditional Orthodox and chassidic schools say much of the province’s new compulsory ethics and religious culture course (ERC) is “irreconcilable with our convictions.”

They are seeking to work with the Quebec education ministry to find a way to abide by the law, said Rabbi Yochanan Kuhnreich, principal of Beth Jacob School, which has about 500 female elementary and high school students, without going against their beliefs.

“A large and important part of the course, which deals with ethics and values, was already being taught in our school,” he said. “But there are serious challenges posed by the other aspects that are not reconcilable with our convictions.”

He declined to spell out what those aspects are, but the religious culture part of the course aims to give students an understanding of the religions considered to be part of Quebec’s heritage – Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and aboriginal beliefs – as well as an overview of the other major world religions and secularism.

The government’s goal is to promote tolerance and a sense of commonality, and schools have been given the task of teaching about religion while avoiding religious teaching.

The course must be taken by all students in every school that receives government funding, throughout elementary and high school. The government has said no exceptions will be made. It replaces the moral and religious education course, which offered the choice of a Catholic, Protestant or neutral orientation.

The ERC was passed into law three years ago, but has been in formulation for at least a decade, since the public school boards were reorganized along French and English, rather than Catholic and Protestant, lines.

Traditional Orthodox schools, which include those affiliated with chassidic communities as well as those such as Beth Jacob, which are non-chassidic but strictly frum, have been reticent about the course until now.

Rabbi Mendel Marasow, principal of Beth Rivkah Academy, which is under Lubavitch auspices, who has expressed doubts in the past about the possibility of the ERC being fully implemented in his school, referred questions last week to Rabbi Kuhnreich, who himself was guarded in his responses.

Privately, chassidic leaders have indicated they would consider leaving Quebec if forced to teach religious material they consider inappropriate for their children.

The position of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS) is that the course is law, and it’s basically leaving it up to its members to come to terms with it as best they can. The AJDS represents 15 school corporations, comprising 23 campuses, including the larger chassidic schools, such as those of the Skver and Belz communities.

A number of chassidic schools are not affiliated with the AJDS, including a few that are already under the scrutiny of the education ministry for not teaching the existing required curriculum.

“The course is compulsory. There is no choice,” said AJDS executive director Charley Levy. “The minister has made it clear there are no derogations.”

On the other hand, he said, “It’s very obvious that for certain schools the ERC is against their confessional project.”

Personally, he thinks there would have been little problem if the course had only dealt with ethics and intercultural dialogue, but instruction on other religions should have been left to the discretion of individual schools.

Levy believes there is enough latitude in the course’s themes that they can be taught in Jewish schools without offending anyone.

“The icons [reproductions of religious symbols] are not going to be acceptable in Orthodox schools, [nor is] visiting a church, for example,” he said. “But certain parts can be done, such as talking about birth celebrations in different religions. The schools will have to see what they can do and what they cannot. Those who can’t do it all will do part of it.”

Although the curriculum is highly structured, with the education ministry issuing a voluminous manual setting content and objectives for each cycle through elementary and high school, there are no set texts.

Levy believes that this inaugural year will be one of “experimentation” for all schools in the province, and that the ministry will allow considerable leeway. All schools, he said, are facing the challenge of finding teachers capable of teaching the course, which will occupy one period a week, and developing appropriate materials.

The ministry has made available “learning and evaluation situations,” teaching modules from the ministry that can be tried out in the classrooms.

Levy, a former executive director of the English Montreal School Board, called the ERC “sophisticated” and said it requires subtlety to teach. “You are going to have to leave your biases behind,” he said.

The position of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) is that the ERC is a commendable development, and Quebec region president Victor Goldbloom, a pioneer in Christian-Jewish dialogue, has praised its ideals and the thought that has gone into developing its content and approach.

CJC did, however, convey to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation last year the feeling of many in the Jewish community that the ERC would best be started in high school.

Many parents, it noted, want their children well grounded in their own religion before being exposed to others.

Solomon Schechter Academy has been one of a handful of schools in the province, and the only Jewish one, to quietly pilot the ERC over the last two years.

“Our experience has been positive. The program has worked out fine. The curriculum is teachable without being offensive to Judaism,” principal Shimshon Hamerman said. “The intentions are good. There is enough flexibility in the course and the ministry has shown sensitivity. There’s a lot of goodwill there.”

Hamerman said that the “overwhelming majority of parents” felt that it was an opportunity for their kids to learn about other cultures and to be aware of the world around them.

No teacher was compelled to teach the course, and a few did decline, he added.

Solomon Shechter, an elementary school, has historically been tied to the Conservative movement, but it has students from a wide range of backgrounds, and Hamerman himself is an ordained Orthodox rabbi with a PhD in theology from the Université de Montréal

He said he has little patience for those who portray ERC as being incompatible with the mission of a Jewish school.

“There are members of our community who would like to put a wall around us and say that everything outside is bad, and that that is the only way to teach Judaism,” he said. “Is there a Jewish child in North America who does not know that Dec. 25 is Christmas? Do we want our children to be misinformed from the outside, or informed by a Jewish teacher in an appropriate setting?”

Another elementary Jewish school principal and ordained Orthodox rabbi, Zev Lanton of Hebrew Foundation School,  said his school is “grappling” with how to teach ERC, but is not closing the door to it.

“There are definitely elements that resonate with our curriculum – we’re already doing ethics and dialogue – and the big picture of trying to understand the other is a beautiful idea, but some aspects are problematic for us,” he said.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Lanton can see the possibility of integrating some of the religious content. “When we study the Flood, we might look at the stories of great floods that are in the traditions of so many other cultures,” he said.

“We are going to have to identify stories and symbols like that which are in common [with Judaism],” he said.

“It’s all very premature. We’re just beginning to dip our toes in the water. We’re at ground zero.

“We have been given broad guidelines and it will be up to each school to try to find a way they can approach this.”

Like Hamerman, Rabbi Lanton thinks it’s unrealistic to pretend that Jewish children are not exposed to expressions of Christianity. “I think there can be some discussion without beginning to question our own faith, or fearing the children will think another religion is better.”

That said, Rabbi Lanton made a plea for the Quebec government to show Jewish schools the tolerance that is the overarching goal of the ERC.

“The beauty of Canada has always been that it is a mosaic, that everyone can take pride in their own identity… Every school has its own mission statement, and we cannot be asked to do something that borders on infringement of our religious freedom,” he said.

“The government has to be careful in applying [the ERC], and ultimately the government has to respond to our needs, as long as the schools subscribe to the big idea of promoting tolerance. They should be allowed to find their own path that takes them toward the goal of understanding others better.”

He added: “Each school has to find it own expression and  that may or may not be satisfactory to the ministry.”