Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review /March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761

Abe Foxman, always
hot on the trail of
church-state violations,
imagined and otherwise

Rocky Mountain Geshrei

Uproar in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as school exhibit about ancient Hebrews is banned. No, there is no anti-Semitism involved. But guess which Jewish organization is in defense of the opposition?

By Susan Josephs -- THE traveling exhibit from the Manhattan-based Jewish Children’s Learning Lab seemed benign. In “From Tent to Temple,” children ages 7 to 12 learn about daily life in the ancient Near East. Divided into sections on food, water, shelter and clothing, the interactive exhibit offers students the opportunity to hunt animals with bow and arrow, till a bona fide dirt field with an Egyptian plow or pitch a tent in a sandpit.

Originally on display at the Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan, the exhibit was visited by both public and private school students before traveling on to a suburb of Kansas City, where it remained on view for a month with nary a hitch.

But when “From Tent to Temple” arrived in Cheyenne, Wyo., two weeks ago, the exhibit hit a raw church-state nerve. Public school officials banned student visits on the grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by promoting a particular religious viewpoint.

Mike Klopfenstein, the assistant superintendent for Laramie County School District 1, cited the exhibit’s references to monotheism and the Ten Commandments.

His decision has set off a spirited debate on what constitutes the separation of church and state in Cheyenne, a capital city of 60,000 with one synagogue of some 70 families.

Coinciding with the Bush administration’s recent efforts to push aid to faith-based organizations that carry out social services, the furor in Wyoming stands as yet another example of how thorny church-state issues occupy a murky terrain as this country wrestles with finding the proper role for some kind of religious expression in the public square.

“One could make the argument that there is a fuzzy line between the separation of church and state,” said Saul Rosenthal, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League covering the areas of Colorado and Wyoming. In an age “where the Christmas tree has become a national symbol, this line is not as clear as it once was.”

When creating the exhibit, Juki Weinfeld, executive director of the Jewish Children’s Learning Lab, had suspected that “somebody, someday may react to the fact that our exhibits are being created by a Jewish organization, even if it’s not a religious organization. I thought that it was a possibility that someone would eventually bring up the issue of the separation between church and state,” she observed.

According to Weinfeld, parents in Cheyenne have pulled their kids out of school to see the exhibit, which remains on view at the Wyoming State Museum through the end of the month. A recent letters-to-the-editor page in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle was devoted to opinions critical of the school district’s ruling.

“This decision to deny class exposure to Hebrew art and culture is a farce,” wrote Ken Erickson, a local resident.

“It is wrong to suppress knowledge because of fear. … Religion is an important influence in all world cultures,” wrote Luana Krause,” another Cheyenne resident.

Moreover, the Tribune-Eagle published a follow-up article disclosing that the same school district had allowed a fund-raiser at a junior high school where items for sale included cross-votive candleholders and cross and Star of David necklaces.

Last Friday, an editorial in the Tribune Eagle criticized the school district for picking and choosing “what religious exhibits or items are acceptable. And it shouldn’t discriminate against one religion or the other, as it surely appears to have done in this case.”

“I am sad that a beautiful exhibit like this cannot be allowed by a school system that has St. Patrick’s Day designs in every classroom and Christmas carols every season,” said Dorothy Feldman, who had originally arranged for the exhibit to be displayed at Mount Sinai Synagogue.

Feldman had hoped local public schools would organize field trips to the exhibit. When told by Klopfenstein “that no way could children be allowed to visit an exhibit that’s in a synagogue,” she enlisted the aid of the Wyoming State Museum, which agreed to house it. She then invited Klopfenstein to view the exhibit.

“He told me at first that he was too busy but I told him, ‘go see it before you make a ruling on it,’ ” Feldman said.

Klopfenstein calls the exhibit “a program of a religious nature. One of the areas of the exhibit asks children to arrange biblical commandments. It has a section on monotheism and how the Hebrews were the first to believe in one G-d,” he said. “That this is sponsored by a religious organization of a religious nature is not ambiguous to me.”

After conversations with Feldman and Klopfenstein, the ADL’s Rosenthal, who has not seen the exhibit, agreed with the assistant superintendent that the exhibit promotes a specific, religious point of view.

“If the exhibit makes references to biblical commandments, I can understand why a public school system would have an issue with field trips,” he said. “It’s analogous to taking public school kids to the new biblical theme park in Florida. There’s no way to see that as a religiously neutral experience.”

Pointing to the recent guidelines on teaching religion established by the U.S. Department of Education, Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs in Washington, offers a different argument.

“The basic message is that public schools can certainly teach religion. They just can’t preach religion,” Diament said of the guidelines. “I find it hard to imagine how taking kids to a museum exhibit that mentions Jewish practice is preaching religion. The exhibit is not saying that people should become Jewish.”

According to Weinfeld, when the Learning Lab set out to create “From Tent to Temple,” the goals “were to express a historical, archeological, sociological point of view and to show biblical stories as archeological clues for how people lived,” she said. “We wanted every child to be our target audience. We thought, here is this great book, the Hebrew Bible. If you’re not religious, you might never hear about it, and what a terrible omission in one’s education.”

Though primarily concerned with the basic needs of daily life, the exhibit cannot avoid addressing religion and ethics. But for the most part, it steers clear of theological pronouncements like who wrote the Bible and the subject of miracles. “We tried to point out the development of ethical thought, but we never say that you should behave this way or that way,” said Weinfeld.

The exhibit “is really nondenominational and it has been visited by zillions of [Jewish and non-Jewish] school children,” said Sylvia Herskowitz, director of the Yeshiva University Museum. “I thought it was very even-handed in the ways it discussed ancient history.”

To Herskowitz, the ban on school visits in Cheyenne seems linked “to an underlying cause that’s not so readily apparent. I would be suspicious of this person’s motives,” she said of Klopfenstein.

Hilary Lewis, however, the director of school services for the Central Agency for Jewish Education in Kansas City, can “understand why public schools would have this hesitancy” toward the exhibit. “They have to answer to so many constituencies,” she said.

Lewis had arranged for “From Tent To Temple” to be displayed in the Overland Park, Kan., Jewish Community Campus, which houses a number of Jewish organizations and notes that “we did not direct outreach efforts towards the public schools. Our original intent was to service the Jewish community,” she said. “But we did publicize to the general community, so everyone could make a decision on their own to come.”

Feldman does not regret approaching Cheyenne’s public schools about the exhibit. “I feel that all children should be taught how diverse our United States is,” she said. “We have to teach kids that we can share our moral values while preserving our individual ethnic heritage.”

Weinfeld agrees that “somehow, public schools should be able to teach children about religions.”

“As far as the JCLL is concerned, this is probably the most religious exhibit we’ll ever do, if you can call it religious,” she said. “I say this not because of what’s going on in Wyoming but because we’re not about religion.”

Susan Joseph is a staff writer with the New York Jewish Week. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2001, New York Jewish Week