Local Jewish leaders came out in force as the Millburn school board heard comments on possible changes to its schools calendar that could eliminate days off for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Although the board has not endorsed any action on the calendar, local parents and clergy were alarmed by one board member’s suggestion this month that the district eliminate all school closings for religious holidays — including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — and allow students to take excused absences instead.
That suggestion, by board member Emily Jaffe, a self-identified observant Jew, came in response to a petition by the Hindu community that the schools close for one day of the Hindu Diwali festival and a request by Chinese-American residents for closings on the Chinese New Year.
A diverse crowd of over 75 people attended the April 28 Millburn Township board of education meeting at the Education Building in Millburn.
During the discussion of school closings, the board did not respond or express any opinion, stating its policy of keeping the public comments period open only to members of the public. Its members did not say when or whether it would take any action on proposed changes to the calendar, but said they would respond to any questions posed at the meeting on its website later in the week.
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, whose four children have either graduated from or are currently enrolled in Millburn public schools, urged the board to retain the school closings on the Jewish High Holy Days.
“The only way to observe them appropriately restricts one from attending school or work,” she said in her comments. “Removing these holidays from the school calendar would unquestionably have a genuinely adverse effect on a significant number of people in the school community.”
She noted that most of the surrounding communities continue to close schools on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and that local residents “depend” on having these holidays off and have done so for many decades.
She added that given the rigor of the high school — ranked this month by U.S. News & World Report as the fourth-best open-enrollment public high school in New Jersey — “excused absences and teacher approval for missed assignments for observance of a holiday place a heavy burden on the students.”
Also attending were four other rabbis serving and/or living in the Millburn-Short Hills community: Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of the Chai Center in Short Hills, and Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, a member of B’nai Israel and copresident of the Women’s Rabbinic Network of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The debate began in late 2013 when members of the Hindu community submitted a petition to close schools for one day for the autumn Diwali festival. At an April 7 meeting to discuss the calendar, Jaffe suggested that eliminating all school closings for religious holidays in exchange for excused absences might be the best way to treat all religious groups equally.
Jyoti Sharma of Short Hills, speaking in favor of the Diwali proposal, noted that the festival is “the biggest religious celebration of Hindus across the world.” Representatives of the Chinese community also submitted a petition to the board at the April 28 meeting, requesting that school close for the Chinese New Year. Like the Hindu group, they suggested that the board schedule a staff development day to coincide with the Chinese New Year or incorporate it into the midwinter recess.
In her remarks, Risa Lieberman of Short Hills, mother of two 10th-graders and a sixth-grader in the Millburn schools, urged the board to consider whether or not observance of a particular holiday precludes attendance at school, and whether demographics would require the school to close if so many students and faculty members would be absent as “to disrupt the learning environment.”
Sharma questioned that approach, asking, “Are we creating a pecking order of religion?”
Similarly, Gewirtz urged the group not to “delegitimize one religion in the name of another.”
“I’m concerned about the undertones of all this. I’m here as a Jew, but also as an American,” he said. “When we start comparing who needs to take off and who doesn’t, we’ve lost the battle.”
Instead, he suggested that any decision be delayed by one more year, so that the local clergy, school board, and community members could sit together “to learn how we each celebrate, why we celebrate, and what our needs are.”
“Our responsibility is to get to know each other and make sure we make this decision as Millburn residents from all our communities, and that it is intellectually, spiritually, psychologically, and rationally a sound decision,” said Gewirtz.