As Rabbi Robert Wolkoff began preparing for the “ongoing” discussion with the South Brunswick Board of Education about closing public schools on the Jewish High Holy Days, a thought occurred to him.
“Given the fact that the demography of the area is changing and we have a lot of Muslims and Hindus, how can we justify having the religious needs of our community taken into consideration while the needs of others are not accommodated?” asked Wolkoff, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, in an interview with NJJN.
So he enlisted the help of the South Brunswick Area Interfaith Clergy Association in persuading the board to put Muslim Eid al-Fitr and Hindu Diwali on its schedule of closings, in addition to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The move profoundly affected members of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, according to the South Brunswick mosque’s religious director, Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli.
“When I reported the good news at a service…I could see the tears in the eyes of the many mothers and fathers,” said Chebli, five of whose six children have gone through the local district.
Calling Wolkoff, “my friend,” he added, “And if there is any credit, this should go to the members of our South Brunswick Area Clergy Interfaith Association and our wonderful rabbi.”
The calendar was passed unanimously in the spring upon the recommendation of schools superintendent Gary P. McCartney, said board member Marty Abschutz. A B’nai Tikvah member who was vice president at the time, Abschutz added there were no resident objections.
“Rabbi Wolkoff’s role in this should not be diminished,” he said. “He’s really quite something. He brought the matter to the attention of the clergy association after researching it on his own. We always work with the clergy association in considering holidays. It involved some reworking, but we think we have quite a fair calendar.”
Eid, the festival of fast-breaking, falls at the end of the month-long holiday of Ramadan, through which Muslims fast during the day. Because of the Muslim calendar, holidays fall at different times each year. This year Eid begins on Sept. 10, which, coincidentally, overlaps with Rosh Hashana, which begins the evening of Sept. 8.
Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, involves the lighting of small clay lamps filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. During the holiday, celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with others. It begins annually in late September to early October.
Closing schools for these holidays is unusual among the almost 600 school districts statewide, said a spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Mike Yaple said he knew of only one district, Passaic, which declared Diwali as a school holiday and only eight others that gave time off for Eid.
“We do see these things changing and in no small part it is a reflection of the community make-up,” said Yaple. “Schools make accommodations for religious observance, such as allowing Muslim students fasting for Ramadan to take study hall instead of lunch.”
On his synagogue’s website, Wolkoff addressed the long history of schools closing on Christian and Jewish holidays.
He said he did not believe public schools “should be in the business of recognizing religious holidays” nor do they “owe” any religious group days off, adding that schools are closed on Christmas and Yom Kippur because of the difficulty in running them with large numbers of students and staff absent.
“If the Muslims or Hindus have holidays that are as demanding and extensive and as widely attended as Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur, of course the schools should be closed on those days,” he added. “And we in the Jewish community should fight (if it is necessary to fight, which it shouldn’t be), for the right of our neighbors to observe their holidays as fiercely as we fight for our own right to observe them.”