MONTREAL — The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is citing a 16-year-old law to explain why extracurricular Jewish clubs at three of its high schools aren’t being permitted this fall after having run for as long as five years.
But it appears that promotional efforts by the school board itself about the programs may have alerted board leaders to their existence and led to their cancellation.
The clubs, which met at lunchtime and were open to all students, were led by Rabbi Dovid Pearlstein at Royal West Academy in Montreal West, Westmount High School and Royal Vale High School in Notre Dame de Grâce.
Rabbi Pearlstein, who has been involved for about three years, said he was abruptly told at the end of the last school year (earlier in the case of Westmount) that he could not continue coming to the schools because of Bill 180.
That’s the act to amend the Education Act passed in 1997, reforming the public school system after the abolition of denominational school boards and the reorganization of schools under French and English boards.
He was told that the law forbids religious instruction in public schools.
Carolyn Gehr, a Royal West math and science teacher, directed the club at her school. She’s on maternity leave this year, but brought the club ban to the attention of The CJN. She believes a CJN article last March helped spur the move.
“Partially as a result of this article, the EMSB has now banned these clubs in all their schools, saying it is in contravention of Bill 180 regarding religious neutrality in schools,” she wrote in a letter.
EMSB spokesperson Michael Cohen Cohen acknowledged that a press release his department issued about the popularity of the Royal West Jewish club last spring, and the resulting exposure in the media, including The CJN, may have had something to do with the EMSB’s decision.
“There was a disconnect somewhere… I imagine this was going on without the full knowledge of the administration,” he said.
“It slipped under the radar… It’s a big school, 900 students. This appears to have been the students’ initiative with a rabbi volunteering to come in to talk to them… The PR we did probably made [the administration] aware of it.”
Rabbi Pearlstein, who is associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch organization’s Chai Centre, said he received permission from the principals of each of the schools before he began the clubs.
Although the primary goal was to strengthen Jewish students’ connection to their roots, Rabbi Pearlstein insists he gave no religious instruction as such. He said he focused on ethical issues and worked within the guidelines of the school. There was talk about Jewish customs and values, and celebrations of holidays.
“There was no prayer. I did not ask anyone to put on tfillin. I knew what my boundaries were and never crossed them,” he said.
“Everybody was always welcome, boys and girls. There were Christians and Muslims – sometimes half the group was not Jewish.”
Gehr describes the ban as “one more indication of the direction in which our province is going in terms of reasonable accommodation,” she wrote.
“My school has 150 to 200 Jewish students and yet we are not allowed to do anything to serve this population.”
She declined to make any further comment on the record.
Cohen said Bill 180 not only rules out religious instruction, it also prohibits “any religious figure” from coming into a school, even for an extracurricular activity. “It would be the same if it was a Catholic priest,” he said.
Cohen’s press release last spring described how about 15 students met every Wednesday at Royal West, where 15 per cent of the students are Jewish. On the day described, they were learning about Purim.
The club at Royal West received a grant last year from Federation CJA’s Gen J program, which supports innovative programming to connect young Jews to their heritage.
The money, which Rabbi Pearlstein said primarily covered the cost of the kosher pizza, was issued to the school, which in turn gave him a cheque as reimbursement.
Rabbi Pearlstein said the clubs’ existence was well publicized in the schools, pointing out that notices of the weekly club meetings were sometimes on the bulletin board or on the school website.
“Every couple of weeks, the spiritual animator [a school staff position] sat in on the club just to see that everything was OK,” he said. “I was not sneaking into the school.”
Rabbi Pearlstein added that another rabbi from the Chai Centre, which runs a youth drop-in program, continues to lead similar clubs at schools under the Lester B. Pearson School Board, the other English board in Montreal.
Rabbi Pearlstein said he started the clubs at the request of some Jewish students. A typical club meeting saw Rabbi Pearlstein present an ethical dilemma to the students and encourage them to offer their views, he said. Topics often centred on the value of human life – suicide, abortion, euthanasia, or whether one should risk his life to save another’s.
“Basically, I wanted to hear the kids’ opinions… It was all about education. I didn’t try to convert anybody… I’m not sure what to think. I’m still trying to figure out what happened. I’m confused,” he said.
Cohen, who is also a Côte St. Luc city councillor, is suggesting an alternative that would allow the Royal West club to continue.
He approached Montreal West Mayor Beny Masella, who has agreed to allow the club to meet at lunchtime at city hall, “a two-minute walk away.”
“I am sticking my head out to facilitate this,” Cohen said. “Something similar off-campus sites could be arranged for other schools.”
However, if the club did meet there, it would not be under Royal West’s or the EMSB’s auspices, he said.
Cohen noted that he has personally tried over the last 15 years to bring Jewish content of a cultural or intercultural nature into the EMSB, including Holocaust education and exchanges with Jewish schools.
Cohen also noted that Royal Vale and several elementary EMSB schools have for many years offered Jewish heritage language programs, sanctioned by the education ministry and known by the acronym PELO, which teach Hebrew, as well as Jewish history and culture.
He suggests that Royal West students could press for its introduction at their school, or they might ask the school’s spiritual animator to help them organize some kind of programming with a Jewish theme.
While Royal Vale is the only high school running PELO now, there are plans for a Jewish heritage program to be offered at Wallenberg Academy, a high school in Côte St. Luc that the EMSB hopes to open in 2014, Cohen said.