Headmaster’s Thoughts – January 2005

As the headmaster of a New York City school, albeit a private one, I get a good deal of mail on the issue of prayer in schools. Most of it comes from right wing Christian groups, who feel that we are losing contact with the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage if prayer is banned from public schools.

Opponents of the pro-prayer lobby are not as frequent in their mailings or as loud in their passion. They believe that students from a non-religious background will feel humiliated by their potential confrontation with mandatory prayers and hymns. On this issue, I find myself reluctantly siding with the right-wingers. As a Jew, singing about Jesus is not my first choice of communal song, but in my memory, it was not a painful experience either. The anti-prayer group also raises constitutional issues—but then, everyone does.

There were four Jews in my grade at our public high school in North London. We were called “the Kosher Quartet” once by an English teacher, and the name stuck. It is true that we did hang together as a group; certainly we stood together at the morning assembly when, among the announcements for the day and the address by the headmaster, there was always a Christian hymn that everyone sang. It was usually “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” I can still sing it now, and I have always liked the tune:

Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

Three of us—Alan Ereira, Stephen Wilson, and myself—sang it straight. The fourth, Bruce Fireman, would sing in low harmony and repetitively “onward, onward, onward, onward…” throughout the hymn. It worked fairly well, and the Kosher Quartet, I thought, acquitted itself honorably. We were the only ones who noticed how melodically we handled all this. Everyone else ignored our efforts, which leads me to suspect that good Christians among us also were singing “onward” repetitively throughout the hymn.

There are few things that remain as a bond between us as we age. Steve Wilson is now a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University. Alan Ereira became a cinematographer and author. Bruce Fireman made a lot of money in business, and I became a headmaster. Nearly 40 years later, though we share little in common, I am willing to bet that if you could persuade any group to start singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in front of us, three of us would join in word for word, and the fourth (a rather owlish intellectual with glasses, who every year walked the compulsory cross country run) would start a peculiar harmony with the word “onward” sung repetitively. Far from being traumatized, I miss not having the three around for the rendition. In their honor, I will sing it one more time:

Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

One day, I will find out what it means. .

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org