Growing up as a Jew in a rural town, I quickly learned not to ask for special treatment around the Jewish holidays and that still holds true. However, I now live in Roxbury, a town that has a fairly large synagogue as well as synagogues in most of the neighboring towns representing a significant Jewish population. Yet, year after year I find Jewish children are discriminated against by the school system.
In 2013, the first day of school was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah (a very sacred holiday where work is forbidden), I attempted to explain to the administration and Board of Ed that this puts Jewish children at a severe disadvantage both socially and academically as they will not hear the teacher’s expectations for the year and have the opportunity to make those first-day-of-school connections especially in a new school.
The administration refused to modify the calendar saying it posed “contractual issues”. A small group of us spoke at a board meeting about this and “poof” the calendar was changed and we were thankful.
Board member Theresa D’Agostino, came up to us afterward and apologized and said they didn’t know that Rosh Hashanah was a two-day holiday (despite the fact that it is listed on every American calendar, but that’s besides the point) and that it would never happen again. The district did the right thing here despite their initial error.
Several years later and in an age where cultural sensitivity seems to trump all else, our school system still has school on Rosh Hashanah despite the surrounding towns taking off. I’m not happy, but I’m ok with this.
What is NOT acceptable is how the district has absolutely no consideration for those who need to celebrate the Jewish holidays.
This school year alone, Jewish children were excluded from EMS student council elections and Encore choir auditions both held on Rosh Hashanah, EMS school musical and the Junior Prom which were both held on the first night of Passover when Jewish people conduct their Seder meals. What message are they sending to Jewish children here? The message my kids got was “You are not invited to participate because you are Jewish”.
I am sure that they would never hold prom or school musical on Good Friday. In addition, Jewish EMS students had to miss lunch all week to make up the standardize testing also held on Rosh Hashanah. I am sure there were other issues in the elementary schools and Lincoln Roosevelt as well.
Some of you reading this may not feel that this is a big deal, but it is. It is such a big deal that there are even state laws regarding this including N.J.S.A. 18A:36-14 through 16 and N.J.A.C. 6A:32-8.3(j), which states: “Any pupil absent from school because of a religious holiday may not be deprived of any award or of eligibility or opportunity to compete for any award because of such absence.”
Therefore, being awarded a student council seat, a spot in a choir or a role in the school musical would most certainly qualify. Of course, offering separate auditions or elections would not suffice as the notion of separate, but equal has been thrown out by the Supreme Court many years ago and offering Jewish students the opportunity to work on student council without the recognition is also insufficient.
The 2017/18 school calendar was up for approval last week where once again school was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah (despite having an extra day to use since Yom Kippur fell on a weekend that year). At the Board meeting, we urged for a calendar change or a policy designed to prevent exclusion of children observing religious holidays.
Both requests were ignored and the calendar was approved. I subsequently emailed Superintendent Loretta Radulic about this issue and she said “Your request is already listed as an agenda item for an upcoming Cabinet meeting. I agree that scheduling considerations should be given when one-time events and testing coincides with holidays. It will be addressed.”
I have heard this story before and by September, it’s all forgotten. There needs to be policy written, it needs to be notated on the school calendar, not just for Jewish holidays, but for all holidays that are on the state’s list of excused religious holidays. This is getting worse each year and it has to stop.
It’s bad enough that our school administration and BOE support a textbook that suggests that Jews may have poisoned wells, caused the plague and engage in “wicked” professions, but now that same administration is actually the source of discrimination (whether intentional or unintentional) and some are even citing anti-Semitism.
It’s time for a change in policy and most certainly a change in Board of Education members at this point after one poor decision after another.