Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 18, 2012

Jewish song dropped from concert

Musical directors opt to boycott after GTACS pulls music


TRAVERSE CITY — Local Catholic school officials dropped a Hanukkah song from a Christmas concert scheduled for tonight, prompting public school chorale and band directors to boycott the show they arranged.

Normally a Catholic school's song selection doesn't hit the public school radar, but in this case chorale students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School were led by Traverse City Area Public Schools instructors.

A traditional Jewish song, "Festival of Lights," was to be among musical selections tonight at Interlochen Arts Academy, but officials at Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools balked. After days of discussions with TCAPS officials, the Catholic leaders decided the show must go on — without TCAPS chorale director Jamie Geurkink and band director Cress Smith.

"I don't have a problem with Jewish music," GTACS Superintendent Mike Buell. "But this is a Christmas festival, and that's what we've traditionally done. It's a Christ-focused time of our advent season."

TCAPS provides instructors to GTACS in the areas of music, art and physical education. In turn, TCAPS increases its student count and gets more money from the state of Michigan.

Catholic students are considered TCAPS students during their hours of TCAPS instruction, said Assistant Superintendent Jayne Mohr.

After numerous conversations with TCAPS school officials, GTACS decided over the weekend to keep the Hanukkah song on the playlist. But on Monday, Buell reversed the decision and decided the concert will be conducted by GTACS staff, said TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins.

Geurkink and Smith decided they would decline to take part in the concert if GTACS banned Festival of Lights, said TCAPS board member Marji Rich.

Geurkink declined comment.

Buell said the issue came up because it's the first time middle school children were to present a Christmas concert. Typically, elementary children performed Christmas concerts, led by GTACS staff.

"I've been here for 14 years, and that's how we've always done it. TCAPS teaches the class, and we do the Christmas program," he said.

Mohr said that as long as TCAPS isn't involved, GTACS has the authority to determine its own program.

"We respect GTACS' desire to honor the belief of their congregation and to meet the needs of their faith and community," Mohr said.

TCAPS board member Gary Appel, who is Jewish, said TCAPS made a good faith effort to resolve the situation in a way that worked for both sides.

"As a public school system, TCAPS can't be in the business of appearing to favor one religion over another," Appel said.

Rich, who also is Jewish, originally applauded GTACS for its initial decision to include the Hanukkah song because she said it's important to teach students the "important lessons of open-mindedness and embracing other cultures."

After GTACS reversed the decision, Rich acknowledged their right to do so, without TCAPS' involvement.

The flap over Festival of Lights echoes last month's controversy at the First Congregational Church, whose pastor and church council asked Jeffrey Cobb, Northwestern Michigan College's chorale director, to omit a Muslim Call to Prayer from a larger musical piece, "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace."

In that case, choirs from TCAPS and NMC combined with the church choir to pay tribute to veterans and the late, beloved chorale director, Mel Larimer.