Secular Ramat Gan high school bans pupils from praying

Peers join prayers out of protest; school arranges for alternate "davening venue."

kippa nyet 88 (photo credit: )
kippa nyet 88
(photo credit: )
A small group of pupils at the secular Ohel Shem High School in Ramat Gan who have begun to embrace a more religious lifestyle have been denied permission to pray on school premises. On Sunday, pupils interested in praying at school met with representatives of the Ramat Gan Municipality, the Education Ministry, Ohel Shem's parent organization and school principal Adam Kenigsberg. Haredi MKs Shlomo Benizri (Shas) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) also attended the meeting at Ohel Shem. During the meeting, the pupils and MKs were told that prayer would not be allowed on the school premises. Instead, a building across the street from the school called Beit Hatzanchan [Paratrooper's House] was made available to the pupils for afternoon prayer. But one pupil who regularly took part in the prayers at Ohel Shem before they were banned told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that he and his friends were unhappy with the agreement. "Parents put pressure on the school because they are afraid that their children will catch the religious virus," he said, preferring to remain anonymous. "But that's not my problem. All we want is the right to pray in a convenient place on school premises so we aren't late to classes." He said that on average, some 15 students attended the afternoon prayers daily. "But when the principal tried to stop us, more students, who didn't personally want to pray, joined the prayers in protest against the anti-religious policy," he said. Gafni called the school's decision "outrageous." "There is no reason not to allow those students to pray at school," said Gafni. "I think the school is purposely trying to dissuade the students from praying by making it as difficult as possible. It warms my heart that a group of pupils who are obviously secular, with long hair and no kippot, are interested in praying. Forcing them to leave the school creates medical insurance problems since they are not covered outside the perimeter of the school," he added. Ohel Shem is not the only secular high school in Ramat Gan at which a small group of pupils has demanded the right to religious expression. At Bliech High School, which boasts over 2,000 pupils, a prayer group, averaging 20 pupils but sometimes with as many as 60, has been meeting regularly since last year for the Mincha prayer at 12:15 p.m. "We pray in a small, inconspicuous room and nobody bothers us," said a 12th grader at Bliech, who also preferred to remain anonymous. "They've asked us a few times to stop praying, but we've basically ignored them." He said that he had become more religious of his own initiative and denied claims that rabbis involved in aggressive outreach from neighboring Bnei Brak, an overwhelmingly haredi city, had coerced the students at Bleich and Ohel Shem to embrace Orthodox Jewish practice. The pupil added that his peers who took part in the prayers were both Ashkenazi and Sephardi and that many came from totally secular families. The Ramat Gan Municipality's spokesman's office refused to allow the Post to interview the principals at Bliech and Ohel Shem. The city spokesman said that Ohel Shem "was always and will always be a secular school that is open to secular, traditional and religious students. [But] religious activity has no place in the school, nor will it in the future, just as secular activities have no place in religious schools, he added. "[The] Ramat Gan Municipality is not opposed to prayer or learning Torah... Ramat Gan enjoys tolerance and mutual respect between the religious and secular populations. Students interested in praying are invited to so in Ramat Gan's excellent synagogues and religious schools. "In addition, we have also arranged for a place of prayer in a nearby building, in accordance with the agreement reached in the Knesset Education Committee on December 31. This is a solution that will not disrupt the school routine and at the same time meets the needs of the students," the statement concluded. While Israel has no official separation between church and state, public schools are split into three main categories: haredi, religious Zionist or secular. Secular schools often cater to pupils who come from a wide range of backgrounds, from non-Jewish to traditional.