David Neal didn't expect to get his nose broken when he tried to opt out of attending a production of "Godspell."
Held at Bakersfield's Centennial High School in spring 2003, attendance for the musical -- based on the life of Jesus -- was mandatory, and David, a rabbi's son, was offended that his public school would stage it. He wanted no part of the event.
"My son asked to get up and leave, and [school officials] said, 'You will stay here,'" said Rabbi Bruce Neal. The production was organized by an instructor who is also a church choir director, the rabbi said.
The incident led to heated religious arguments between David and other students, which degenerated a few days later into an after-school brawl involving 30 fundamentalist students that left David with a broken nose and a five-day suspension. The disciplinary action was later dropped following an appeal from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
"I attribute the majority of the difficulties to this play," Neal said. "There is no place in the public school for 'Godspell,' period."
While the high school production of a Christian musical might seem innocuous to some, the evangelical and fundamentalist push to get more Christian programs, events and clubs into public schools, especially in rural areas, is gathering momentum on a national level. Many blame the recent release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" for spurring on these groups and providing them with publicity they might never have achieved on their own.
Like David Neal, Jews are fighting back.
Jews for Judaism, a Los Angeles-based countermissionary group, is opposing these efforts with its local educators' summit on March 21. The one-day event at the Luxe Hotel Bel Air, "They Get Them -- Why Can't We?," hopes to teach how Christian evangelicals and missionaries target Jewish students. Co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), the Los Angeles Hillel Council and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the summit will offer an overview of methods used by evangelicals to hard-sell Christianity to students and provide Hebrew and day school teachers with techniques to help students respond when confronted by evangelicals.
"Hopefully, this will be the catalyst for the creation of a curriculum ... to prepare kids before they get inundated," said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Jews for Judaism's founder and West Coast director. "Whether they go to Hebrew school and public school or whether they go to a Jewish day school, they're all vulnerable."
According to BJE, Los Angeles is home to more than 31,000 Jewish students attending day schools and Hebrew schools. The Federation's 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey found 73,650 school-age Jewish children in the Southland.
With evangelicals accounting for one-quarter of all U.S. Christians, according to a recent ABC Poll, Kravitz said that at some point, they're going to have interaction with a Jewish student.
"They're becoming more brazen in their willingness to share since 'The Passion,'" he said.
The ADL, which helped mediate David's case with the Bakersfield City School District, is tracking the efforts of evangelical projects in public schools around the country.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Revolution's FiSH and flagpole prayer meetings are a few campus efforts gaining ground in middle and high schools. Recently, the ADL uncovered a new brand of witnessing in public schools it calls "stealth evangelism."
Bait-and-switch events like 2002's "Rage Against Destruction," a traveling musical extravaganza that put on public school assemblies with an anti-violence message, are a prime example. Sponsored by Joyce Meyer Ministries in St. Louis, "Rage" was a nationwide youth ministry that held clandestine assemblies at schools in New York City and New Jersey, featuring Sony PlayStation giveaways and concert-quality performances.
"They were marketing to kids," said Amanda Susskind, the ADL's Pacific Southwest regional director. "And people didn't realize they were signing up for an evangelical experience."
"Rage" was outed by the ADL in November 2002 and the ministry discontinued the program just before it hit Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 2003.
The ADL said the Los Angeles Unified School District and other districts around Los Angeles County have programs in place to deal with the threat posed by organized evangelism on campus. "It's not really so much of a problem here," Susskind said.
Kravitz, who disagrees with ADL's threat assessment, said his organization conducted a survey of 266 local Hebrew and day school students and found 69 percent of respondents have been approached by someone trying to convert them to another religion.
"It doesn't have to be missionaries standing on street corners handing out brochures," Kravitz said.
Rebecca Litt, a ninth-grader at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., didn't know what to say when her Christian classmates who saw "The Passion" confronted her about her faith.
"You could feel the tension," she told The Journal. "I can't just sit there and say, 'I believe in God.' That's not enough for them."
Shimon Cagan, an adult volunteer for National Conference of Synagogue Youth who works to establish Jewish Student Union chapters in area public high schools, said that the release of "The Passion" has changed the mood on campus.
He said that in the weeks leading up to the film's release Jewish students expressed concern about anti-Semitism. Since the controversy has quieted down, the students are more relaxed, but "at the same time they still feel that maybe not now, but in the future, this movie will have a roll to play in something that wouldn't be so good for the Jews," he said.
Jews for Jesus' Los Angeles office is currently distributing two cartoon-illustrated pamphlets that build on the popularity of "The Passion." Both are written in language clearly geared toward youth.
Jews for Jesus says that it does not do outreach to minors.
"It's not like we're standing outside of Beverly Hills High School preying on kids," said Tuvya Zaretsky, who heads up Jews for Jesus' Los Angeles office.
But Noah Mendelsohn, a 16-year-old Shalhevet student, said he was visiting UCLA with his brother when he was approached by a Jews for Jesus representative.
"He saw that my brother was wearing a kippah and I was walking with him," he said. "He was trying to get our attention, but we just walked away."
Mendelsohn's reaction is not unusual. Based on Jews for Judaism's survey, 46 percent of students did nothing in response to being approached. In addition, 34 percent spoke to a parent and 10 percent of students talked with peers, compared with 6 percent who talked with a teacher and 4 percent who approached a rabbi.
Jews for Judaism acknowledges that its survey sample is small, but organizers expect similar results when they hire an independent agency to conduct a more professional survey of Jewish students.
While the scope of the organization's summit does not include an outreach to public schools, Jews for Judaism hopes Hebrew school instructors will be able to pass on what they've learned to their students who attend public schools. Once those students are educated, Kavitz said, they can look out for follow Jewish students who are unaffiliated.
"We need to empower as many students as possible ... so that maybe they can help someone else," he said.
Jews for Judaism's Educators' Summit "They Get Them -- Why Can't We?" will be held at the Luxe Hotel Bel Air, 11461 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Sunday, March 21, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 556-3344 or visit www.jewsforjudaism.org .
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