Jewish holidays have made a substantial impact on various public school systems as an official no-school day. From Portland to New York City, how has this religious group taken steps that no other group can even imagine?
Vanessa Meyerowitz is a Jewish student in the Portland Public School (PPS) system. She and 300 students and teachers in the system have signed and presented a petition to the PPS Superintendent Carole Smith (as well as the PPS Board of Education) requesting the religious Jewish holidays off in future school year calendars. The Jewish Student Union has also cooperated with her efforts, particularly its regional President, Natan Brownstein.
Meyerowitz and Brownstein personally addressed the Board on February 11th, 2011, as detailed by the Jewish Review, “a twice-monthly, non-profit tabloid newspaper published since 1959 by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.” The two students specifically made these requests:
- “In past years, the policy has been that students who miss finals can make them up after school on one of the other finals days. It is very difficult, if not impossible to take all my finals on one day. As we will be missing for religious reasons, I request that accommodations be made to allow me to fulfill my religious and academic obligations.”
- “Furthermore, I would like to request that the district take the Jewish holidays into consideration while planning the school calendar for future years.”
Brownstein also mentioned interesting details about Jewish holidays in his speech to the Board. He noted that there are two different types of holidays in Judaism – religious and non-religious. Non-religious holidays, such as the widely known Hanukah, only require the practice of specific customs. However, religious holidays forbid Jews to “go about their every day lives,” as he noted. Like the Sabbath, everyday life is severely influenced by the practice of these holidays, thus leaving open the possibility for poor academic performance. Students were not asking for every Jewish holiday off – just the days that would possibly affect their grades.
Portland officials were highly impressed with Meyerowitz and Brownstein, and explicitly stated that they planned to consider incorporating the Jewish holidays into the academic calendars.
So in Portland, Oregon, population and academic performance matter – and possibly articulate orators from the student body.
Redondo Beach, California
In the West Coast: Redondo Beach is a “beach city” just twenty miles from the well-known Los Angeles in SoCal. As of January 13th, 2010, the Redondo Beach Unified School District Board of Education added Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the district’s non-school holidays. These holidays “mark the beginning and end of the 10 day period known as the Jewish High Holy Days each September.”
Assistant Superintendent Nancy Billinger said that the main reason why these two holidays would be observed in the district was the “fiscal impact of not doing so.” In short, the school district is only funded when students are present; thus, whenever there is a huge decline in attendance on certain days (i.e, the High Holy Days), there is a drop in the funding towards the school. By officially adding the days as no-school days, the district can regain the funding it may have lost.
The district also saw the lack of attendance as a representation of the “population demographic” as well. If a significant number of students were absent, it would affect the academic experience of the school as a whole, as there is a limit to what can be done when so many students are not present in class. Giving the students day off would allow them to freely observe their religion; after all, for the students, these days are not really days off from school. As the state of California requires 180 days of school to students, days will be added at the beginning or end of the school year.
Redondo Beach, California considers economics and population – true American capitalist spirit, perhaps?
Chagrin Falls, Ohio
The Chagrin Falls school district has closed school on the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) since 2003; however, unlike other regions, the district has only “closed for one of the two holidays each year.” According the Chagrin Valley Times, this decision was made solely by the apparent numbers – the significant number of students who were absent on these days. As the district wanted to accommodate the students’ needs, but not actually celebrate the religious holiday, they chose to keep one of the two significant days open.
The district has explicitly stated that their decisions were logistical; they have also influenced nearby school districts as well. Nearby Kenston’s School District’s Superintendent Robert A. Lee stated that if the demographics of Kenston change, they would consider closing. As for now, the district makes sure that important events are not scheduled on the respective days.
For Ohio, “Closing school for Jewish holidays is [a] matter of numbers.”
New York City
It is clear that various cities throughout the United States consider the population of the student body as an important factor in determining the school closures for religious holidays – and the reasons are quite obvious and understandable.
New York City takes a similar approach; however, it is also significantly different. The New York Times states “the practice of New York City schools’ closing for the Jewish High Holy Days dates back to at least the 1950s, when the teaching force was largely Jewish.” Because the majority of the teaching force had requested for a absence because of these religious holidays, the City had decided to close the schools on those specific days altogether; since then, the policy has simply been retained.
This policy was also in accordance with a document provided by the New York City Department of Education (DOE). According to the DOE, a teacher is able to request time off for religious observance, except during the following instances:
- In cases of an emergency
- If the individual’s personal presence is indispensable to the orderly transaction of business
- For positions dealing with health or safety where the person holding such position must be available for duty whenever needed, or
- If the individual’s personal presence is regularly essential on any particular day or days or portion thereof for the normal performance of that individual’s duties
Thus in New York, the observable policy towards religious holidays seems to be that if all the teachers will be significantly absent, the DOE will try and accommodate their needs. In special cases, the teachers will even be able to request personal absences, as long as they adhere to the rules that the DOE has outlined. This is more fair than catering to a specific group of students in the ever-growing student community – a fair policy in a city as diverse as ours.
However, this also makes the controversy regarding Muslim holidays extremely questionable. Why is it that a city so tolerable of one religion is so adamantly against another?