September 2020 Church & State Magazine | Viewpoint

By Stan Balis

On March 25, 2019, when the first Muslim woman took the oath of office to become a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Republican member, Stephanie Borowicz, began the legislative session that day by delivering a prayer that declared, “Jesus, I thank you for this privilege, Lord, of letting me pray, God, that, I, Jesus, am your ambassador here today, representing you, the king of kings, the lord of lords.”

She continued, “Jesus, we’ve lost sight of you. We’ve forgotten you, God, in our country, and we’re asking you to forgive us, Jesus.”

After my initial reaction of shock, but not surprise, upon reading of this purposeful weaponizing of religion in a state legislature, which constituted a blatant violation of the First Amendment’s “no law respecting an establishment of religion” proscription, my next thought was that, even though I had not lived in my hometown of Lock Ha­ven, Pa., in the state’s Appala­chian region since 1967, more than half a century ago when I graduated from high school, the place I remembered so distinctly just had to be part of Borowicz’s district.

When I checked, I discovered that, of course, it was.

Political guru James Carville is credited with describing Pennsylvania as Philadelphia on the east, Pittsburgh on the west, and Alaba­ma in between. Well, right smack dab in the middle lies Lock Haven, population of less than 12,000 in the 1960s and less than 9,000 today, with no city of greater than 100,000 people within 100 miles in any direction. This is where I spent my entire childhood growing up as a member of a distinct minority Jewish community in a town that starkly illustrates the insidious effects, both systemic and individual, of what I call the White Christian Nation.

My maternal grandfather Benjamin had arrived at Ellis Island from Russia at the very beginning of the 20th century. However, instead of remaining in New York or settling in Philadelphia, Baltimore or some other large East Coast city like most other Jewish immigrants, he decided to put a pack on his back and earn his way as a peddler across Pennsylvania on foot to find a cousin in Pittsburgh. Rather than follow the Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh route (as the Pennsylvania Turnpike later did), Benjamin, who spoke Yiddish, found it more familiar and comfortable to veer northwest as he trekked through the Keystone State because he came in contact with various folk of Germanic backgrounds with whom he could communicate because of similarities between their German dialects and Yiddish.

Halfway across the state, but farther north, he happened to arrive in Lock Haven, where, as the story goes, he saw a young woman with rosy cheeks hard at work washing windows. Her name was Mollie, and she was Jewish and an indentured servant. Benjamin was immediately smitten.   

Rather than sweeping her off her feet and taking her with him to Pittsburgh, Benjamin stayed in Lock Haven and married her. The rest is history, including, unfortunately, mine. My father was from an even smaller town in northwestern Pennsylvania which had yet fewer Jewish residents. So, by living in Lock Haven, my parents actually chose the bigger “metropolis.”

When I grew up in Lock Haven, the town’s junior and senior high schools were located directly across from its only synagogue on the aptly named Church Street. My grandparents should have gotten the vibe that maybe the best place to settle down in rural America was not in a town founded by a man named Jerry Church, for whom the street was named. 

My high school graduating class had the most Jewish kids ever, seven out of 367. And, in my little town, everyone knew who was Jewish. There were no African American or other minority group members among my fellow graduates. Thus, I had the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be the “other.”

Of course, the varsity choir sang a multitude of Christmas songs as part of the mandatory annual holiday assembly. Also, the high school held religious vesper services for graduating seniors each year, which the Jewish students could (and did) choose not to attend. In class, other students opined about the international Jewish/communist plot to put fluoride in the water (which was successfully thwarted in Lock Haven, much to the benefit of the town’s dentists), while at the same time warning about the international Jewish bankers who supposedly controlled the worldwide capitalist system.

However, the one religious activity blessed by the junior and senior high schools I want to discuss was “released time,” a period on Wed­nesday afternoons during regular school hours when students were allowed – strongly encouraged, actually – to leave school and go to their respective churches for religious activities.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court may want to believe that released time does not run afoul of church-state separation because the activities are not taking place on public school property and attendance is voluntary, this is just not true.

First of all, secular public education time was being purposely reduced to provide time for private religious instruction. This was surely an explicit endorsement of religious instruction as something not only to be encouraged but to be established as part of the public school year calendar. Moreover, while participation in released-time religious activities was technically voluntary, those choosing not to partake clearly had to identify themselves among their peers and be consigned to hours of sitting in a study hall with no scheduled public school activities.

However, I learned one of my most indelible lessons regarding the meaning of separation of church and state because of it. When I was in junior and senior high school, Lock Haven’s one synagogue happened to have an Orthodox rabbi. Now, this was a rather unlikely occurrence because the only synagogue had to be “one size fits all,” such that Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, very observant and not-so-observant Jews all had to co-exist in one congregation. This alone could qualify as a miracle, but in a small town, it was a necessity. Hence, let’s just say that having an Orthodox rabbi serve a congregation made up almost entirely of non-Orthodox Jews posed its challenges.

In any event, our Orthodox rabbi had us come to the synagogue after school on weekdays for Hebrew school. Thus, when released time arrived on Wednesdays during school hours, this seemed to be a perfect opportunity for us Jewish kids to go across the street to the synagogue and participate in Hebrew school, rather than having to wait until after the regular public school day was over. 

Our rabbi, though, absolutely forbade this from happening because it would be a violation of the separation of church and state! He refused to participate in released time. We were required instead to opt-out of it, spend the hours in study hall while looking out the window at the synagogue directly across the street and then, when the public school day was officially over, walk across the street for Hebrew school.

This one action, seemingly nonsensical to most, and that caused us to further draw attention to ourselves as being the Jewish “others,” actually made me stronger and prouder in my Jewish identity. It also underscored for me the utmost importance of the First Amendment’s prohibition of “an establishment of religion” – not the establishment of a particular religion, but “of religion” over either secularism or non-religion.

The First Amendment is clear that without first assuring that religion, in general, is not established, let alone a particular religion, all the freedoms enunciated after it, including the free exercise of religion, cannot be assured, especially the non-Chris­tian minority religions. By not participating in the establishment of religion, my Orthodox rabbi had strengthened my right to free exercise of religion. With this keen awareness of the centrality and importance of separation of religion and government instilled in me from my childhood experiences in Lock Haven, I became an active member and zealous supporter of Americans United from the 1990s on.

But let me not sugar-coat what it was like to be part of the only minority group in town. In some years, swastikas were put on the synagogue at Easter time. One year, the sukkah, a temporary structure erected outside of the synagogue for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, was torn down; in subsequent years, it had to be put up inside the synagogue instead. Jews were not allowed to become members of the only country club in town. We endured the occasional anti-Sem­i­tic jokes, and of course, we would hear how someone had “jewed down the price” to get an especially good deal on some purchase.

Looking at the use of the repugnant phrase “jewed down the price” serves to highlight the issue that has been so poignantly presented by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, namely that of individual versus systemic racism. As BLM has articulated, it is not enough for an individual to proclaim that s/he is not racist. For 400 years, from the beginning of slavery in America in 1619, systemic racism has been baked into the very fabric of our country.

The phrase “jewed down the price” is used by some with no conscious malice or forethought. It instead is deeply embedded in their lexicon without necessarily being related to a purchase that in any way involves a Jewish person or business. It is systemic and, in fact, universal, surely not unique to the United States. However, that makes it more difficult to root out than when it is purposely uttered as an anti-Semitic slur.

Prejudices and hatreds are unique in their roots and how they are experienced by each group victimized by discrimination. No other group can un­derstand the consequences of being subjected to slavery in an America that has yet to reckon with the pain and suffering it has wreaked on its African American population. The same is true for the unique impact on Jews who have been subject to anti-Semitism seemingly forever in virtually every country in which they have lived, including the United States.

However, on the other side of the coin in this country, for the perpetrators of such discrimination in general and the proponents of the White Christian Nation in particular, their chosen victims are interchangeable. The concept is that the United States is a Christian nation, to be under the perpetual control of superior white Christians. Everyone else is the “other” – whether African Ameri­cans, Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, immigrants, et al.

The disturbing incidents inflicted on Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 provide a perfect example. The controversy involved an effort by Afri­can Americans to remove a statue of the traitorous Confederate General Rob­ert E. Lee from a public park. Yet, when white nationalists undertook a tiki torch march in opposition, they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” This, of course, had nothing to do with the removal of Lee’s statue or the rightful grievances of African Americans. But for the White Christian Nation, the “other” is easily conflated and interchangeable.

I learned this growing up in Lock Haven as well. Although no African Americans were living there during my time in that town, truly awful, disparaging things were said about them. Similarly, Borowicz took the lead in insulting Muslims directly with her overtly Christian prayer, safe in the knowledge that she has few, if any, Muslim constituents. Thus they can be blamed for wanting to impose Sharia law on her district. Certainly, the number of Jews in Lock Haven has now dwindled to just a handful as the older generation has died out and almost all their children have moved away, and there no longer is a functioning synagogue congregation. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism will continue in Lock Haven even without any Jews.

We need to boldly confront and defeat this systemic White Christian Nation mentality in America, expressed in all its hateful, discriminatory and vile words, actions and manifestations. In short, the America of the future must not be the Lock Haven of my youth.                         

Stan Balis is a retired attorney who resides in Maryland.