Before School Ends, Time to Make the Matzo



Todd Heisler/The New York Times Children from Queens public schools learn to make matzo.

The children filed out of yellow school buses and descended the stairs to the basement of a Jewish community center in Queens, where they put on plastic aprons and paper chef hats in preparation for a lesson on how to make matzo.

But the trip was not really about baking. It was a dose of religious education, offered free to public school students — during school hours, outside their school’s buildings — under a long-running program known as “released time.”

Established some 70 years ago in school districts nationwide, the program allows children to leave public school early one day a week for religious instruction. It has survived constitutional challenges and dwindling enrollment. In the 1950s and 1960s as many as 100,000 New York City public school students took part; it had just 11,507 participants last month, about 1 percent of the school population, according to the city’s Department of Education.

The city does not track the religions the students belong to, but Catholics and Jews have traditionally used the program most.

Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board at the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, a group run by the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Hasidic Jews, says there are roughly 1,500 city Jewish children attending its program, from 109 schools, in every borough but the Bronx. (The city has roughly 1,700 schools.) Its biggest group comes from Public School 175 in Rego Park, Queens, with 86 children. The smallest are from P.S. 42 and P.S. 58 in Staten Island, which have five students apiece.

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