(University of Bath)

Being Jewish In Private and Public School

How does a religious academic culture affect students? What would make parents or students choose a private religious high school over a public school? How can students find their own religious identity in secondary school? What should be done to ensure religious identities are safe in a school environment? A student body’s religious affiliations have been a controversial issue in public and private schools around the country for years. Our United States Constitution gives all citizens the right to practice their religion, which means that public schools can’t force any particular religion upon their students. 

On the contrary, there are private schools affiliated with the archdiocese, or Jewish schools, for example. Since those are private, they can operate under a specific religion as families choose and pay to send their children there. This usually means that most of the student body and their families identify with the religion of that school. But, there are some families that still run into issues with their religious identities in schools. I am aware that, for families with the funds to do so, private schools, both religiously affiliated or not, are more desirable because they tend to provide a higher quality education than many public schools. Therefore, I support both public and private schools, but I believe that both of these school types have not done enough to make students of all personal and religious backgrounds feel welcome. I’m speaking from personal experience. 

When I was in eighth grade and looking into high school options, I knew that a large public school would not be ideal for me, so I looked into a Catholic all girls’ high school. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of going to a Catholic school given my Jewish affiliation. Nevertheless, I visited campus, shadowed a student for the day, and took the entrance exam. During my shadow day, I learned that the school requires each student to take a theology class and go to mass once a week. The school gave off the impression of being an unwelcoming environment for anyone that was not Catholic. I felt out of place during the recital of biblical verses on the loudspeaker in the morning and like the only one that had not attended mass every week for their whole life. I felt like the only Jew. For the first time in my life, I made a decision that would ensure the support and growth of my religious identity as a Jewish teen. I chose to go to a nondenominational private high school in downtown Chicago, and I have very few regrets about doing so.

The only issue I’ve encountered with my private high school is skipping school for the High Holy Days every year. I have an annual personal tradition to relax and fully immerse myself in the holidays. But, when I’m constantly worrying about the lectures and homework that I’m missing, it makes it hard to get the most out of the sacred time. 

In addition to the High Holy Days, I’ve had conversations with peers on which they would wish they could celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, like me, and ask if I believe in Jesus. They would even ask me if I speak “Jewish”. Those kinds of questions opened my eyes to how little schools have done to support students of all religions. And, it made me grateful because I assume public schools have done even less. 

 Every student should do what they feel is right for them and their religious identities, and bring more awareness and hopefully, acceptance of their religion to schools and to other students. We have a long way to go before we reach true religious awareness and acceptance, but our generation has the tools and the motivation to make a more inclusive and supportive community for us all, in and out of the classroom.

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Hannah Cutler is a senior at Wolcott School in ​Illinois. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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