Millburn residents have begun circulating petitions to return Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to the list of school closings beginning in the township’s 2015-16 school year.
The petitions come in response to a June decision by the Millburn Board of Education to leave it to residents to decide on which holidays the schools will be closed.
The multi-step process includes the petition drives and a survey of families with children in the school system.
“It became clear to us that there wasn’t a process for this,” said school board member Michael King, who chaired the committee in charge of handling the school holiday observance. “We came to the decision that the community and the school board would be well served if we had a process that was transparent and equal for everyone.”
Starting last week, area synagogues and concerned parents hosted opportunities to sign the petitions in favor of closing schools on the two days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Short Hills resident Jordana Horn is leading the petition drives for the High Holy Days. She used her Facebook page to promote signings at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, the Millburn farmer’s market, and local stores, including Panera Bread on Morris Turnpike and Chai Judaica in Millburn.
“I am just a concerned local Jewish mom of five kids who does not want Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be taken off the school calendar,” Horn wrote on her Facebook page.
Calendar changes were considered after the board of education heard requests that the Hindu holiday of Diwali and the Chinese Lunar New Year be added to the calendar. After months of meetings and discussions, the board rejected other options — including extending the school year and eliminating vacations — in favor of the petition process.
For a holiday to be considered, at least 500 residents must sign a petition requesting the school be closed on that day. After such a petition is submitted, every family with a child in the school system will have the opportunity to respond to a questionnaire asking whether they would keep their children home to observe the holiday.
If at least 15 percent of the school body will be absent, the school board will vote to close the school for that day.
“Students are best served when the curriculum can be mapped and proceed according to plan. We want to make sure there are enough kids in class at any time to proceed. If enough kids will be out, then it makes sense to close the school,” said King. “We have no data about when the kids won’t come, and we are prohibited, as a public school, from asking people’s religion.”
The current process, he said, “allows us to get a set of data so that we could then say the demographics in the town have changed, and a number of families will be out so it makes sense to close.”
Jodi Cooperman of Short Hills, whose children attend private school, is helping to coordinate the petition at B’nai Jeshurun. She told NJJN, “While the process feels cumbersome and time-consuming, I appreciate that Millburn/Short Hills is addressing the changing demographics of the town and trying to go about it in a fair way.” While she said she is “personally disappointed” that even though she is a taxpaying resident with school-age children, she will not be allowed to participate in the survey, she added, “We need to work with the system that they have designed.”
B’nai Abraham’s Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, a mother of four boys who have graduated or are going through the Millburn public school system, said, “I’m not happy they threw the Jewish holidays off the calendar, but there were no other solutions offered. I’d like to see Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur remain on the calendar, and I think the population supports that. It’s still painful to have to advocate to get these holidays, but I understand the need to gather the data.”
She added, “It’s also important to recognize the diversity in our community and the needs of all members of the community. I don’t want this to be a divisive issue in the community.”
All petitions must be submitted by Sept. 30, 2014, to be considered for the 2015-16 school year.
Petitions are being circulated for the High Holy Days (two days of Rosh Hashana and one for Yom Kippur) as well as for Good Friday, Diwali, the Chinese New Year, and the Muslim holiday of Eid.