Just before the 1905 Christmas school recess at Public School 144 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, principal Fred. F. Harding told an assembly of children words very much like the following: "Now, boys and girls, at this time of the year especially, I want you all to have the feeling of Christ in you. Have more pleasure in giving than in taking; be like Christ." Augusta Herman, a 13-year-old student otherwise lost to history, boldly requested permission to speak. She asked Harding whether he "did not think such teaching more appropriate in a Sunday school or a church?" Harding replied, "Christ loves all but the hypocrites and the hypocrites are those who do not believe in him." There is no record of the young Ms. Herman’s response, but there is one of the Jewish community protest that Harding’s remarks precipitated.
Historian Leonard Bloom notes that, "by the turn of the twentieth century, the separation of church and state in the [public] school setting was well established in law." This did not stop Harding and other evangelical Christians from testing the limits that the doctrine imposes. By 1905, Brownsville was a densely populated neighborhood of small shops and factories whose population was at least 80% Jewish. Its mix of impoverished Orthodox and militantly socialist Jews made it in many ways indistinguishable from its more fabled neighbor, Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
When news reached the Jewish leadership of Brownsville of principal Harding’s exhortation and Augusta Herman’s firm response, it touched a sensitive nerve. Almost 95% of the Jewish children of Brownsville attended public school. While the community supported a handful of cheders, the overwhelming majority of Jewish parents wanted their children to be Americanized through the public schools. Historian Arthur Goren argues that, for Jewish immigrants of this era, the public schools were "the great democratic institution, the bridge to the new society and the key to self-improvement." Brownsville’s Jewish parents entrusted the public schools to make their children bicultural Americans – Jewish Americans – not American Christians.
A broad based alliance of Jewish activists insisted that Brownsville’s – and New York’s -- Jewish public school children not be proselytized during any season. Although not all spoke or read English, the Jewish parents of P.S. 144 took the lead. More than 100 of them petitioned the local board of education to protest Harding’s lecture. To their disappointment, the local board upheld Harding. The American Hebrew, a voice for Reform Judaism, called the local board’s action at the least "a technical violation of the school law." The paper described the local board’s failure to "assert the supremacy of the law over lawful practice" a far more serious offense than the original one committed by Harding.
The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, led by its director, Albert Lucas, appealed the local ruling to the New York City Board of Education. The Board referred the petition to its Committee on Elementary Education, which took almost 6 months to review the local ruling. Principal Harding decline to appear personally, sending the committee his home telephone number should they wish to reach him. To what must have been Harding’s surprise, the Committee overturned the local board’s decision and described Harding’s behavior as, "to say the least, indiscrete." The Committee noted, "We cannot impress too strongly upon principals and teachers the fact that unusual care and discretion be used on all occasions in their school work not to do aught that may be liable to the construction of teaching sectarian doctrines." In simpler English, the Committee told the principals to make sure that they were not teaching their students Christianity.
As Leonard Bloom notes, "Though the highest school authorities sustained the complaint against Harding, the case was still not over." In the fall of 1906, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations called upon the Board of Education to ban all future Christmas observance of any kind in the New York public schools. Once again, they referred this request to the Committee on Elementary Education. Its chair, Mr. A. Stern, wrote in response that modified Christmas observances would be allowed – Santa Clauses and Christmas trees would still be permitted – so long as "sectarian views" were not introduced. Mr. Stern expressed the opinion that "the more intelligent Jews of this city" echoed his position.
Displeased by Stern’s response, on the weekend of December 22-23, 1906, the Yiddishes Tageblatt newspaper called for a Jewish student boycott of Brownsville’s public schools on Monday, December 24th, a day devoted strictly to closing exercises before the Christmas vacation. The Tageblatt called the proposed boycott a "battle for civil rights." The New York Times reported that between 20,000 and 25,000 children, one third of the school population of Brownsville, missed school that Monday. The Tageblatt’s headline triumphantly proclaimed, "Empty Schools: Tens of Thousands of Jewish Children Shun the Christmas Tree." The boycott succeeded.
Two weeks later, the citywide Elementary School Committee issued a report recommending that the schools ban the singing of hymns and the assignment of essays on sectarian themes during Christmas. They did not, however, exclude Christmas trees or Santa images from the schools. The battle over a more secularized, folklore representation of Christmas festivities, like the debate over crèches and Chanukkah lights on the village green, continues to vex communities across America.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society