School board to mull Rosh Hashana issue
Jewish teachers, rabbis seek return of day off on September holiday
Following objections from Jewish staff, the Piscataway Board of Education will vote on whether to revise its already approved school calendar for 2012-13 to close on Rosh Hashana.
The district has for many years given the first day of Rosh Hashana as a school holiday.
According to the calendar released last month, however, the holiday closing was eliminated. This year the holiday falls on Thursday-Friday, Sept. 5-6, during the first week of school.
The board told staff that closing schools the first week would “disrupt the flow of the school year,” according to Laura Leibowitz, a special education teacher at Piscataway High School.
Leibowitz, who lives in Piscataway, said the staff was taken by surprise by the calendar change.
“Many Jewish teachers and staff noticed it immediately,” said Leibowitz. “I’ve taught in the district about 25 years, and we’ve always had the first day of Rosh Hashana off.”
At the May 9 school board meeting, Leibowitz called the move “a step backward for the district.” In her remarks, which she provided to NJJN, she said, “Not only does it present difficulty for Jewish staff and students, it may also impact the district by significant absences due to personal days the first week of school.”
She said she sought advice from her rabbi, Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, before speaking.
According to an informal survey conducted by Leibowitz and another high school teacher, approximately 13 percent of the district’s more than 600-member professional staff is Jewish and would be “directly impacted.”
Leibowitz pointed out that finding substitutes for 75 teachers would be a logistical problem and an added expense to the district.
She later told NJJN that because some Jewish teachers in past years did not take off work on the second day of the two-day holiday, she believed the board did not anticipate the number of teachers who would absent themselves on the first day.
“Some people consider the first day more important and would take only that day,” she said. “I always take the second day as a personal day. That will be forcing me and other teachers who want to take the second day to use two of our three personal days for the year in the first week.”
Leibowitz also expressed concern that if Rosh Hashana were removed from the calendar as a holiday this year, it would never return.
Also speaking at the meeting was Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky of the Chabad of Union County in Fanwood, who explained the religious significance of the holiday.
After the board listened to public comments, member Ira. D. Stern’s motion to reopen discussion at a June meeting was approved 6-1.
Stern told NJJN that while he was not involved in putting together the calendar, the decision was made as “a matter of convenience” and for “ease of scheduling.”
“I think there is a solution out there,” he said. “Rosh Hashana is a major holiday, and other districts have found solutions, which is why I made the motion to revisit the matter. I would like the schedule changed and have been in discussions with the superintendent.”
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, said the organization anticipated last fall there would be scheduling problems as a result of the early date of the holiday. He requested that the governor’s office instruct the state Department of Education to send out letters giving districts a heads-up.
“I was told a letter had been sent out to the effect that it was policy to be sensitive to these types of issues,” he told NJJN.
A call about the letter to the governor’s office was referred to the DOE, which did not respond to NJJN calls for confirmation.
Piscataway is one of the few districts statewide where the issue has emerged, Toporek said. “I assume most school districts dealt with it on an equitable basis,” he said.
He said some districts chose to delay school opening until after the holiday, while others will open as usual after Labor Day, but close for Rosh Hashana. In Middlesex County, Toporek knew of no other district where Rosh Hashana has become an issue, including larger school systems like New Brunswick, where the district will be closed as usual or both days of Rosh Hashana.
“Our concern was that they not eliminate past practices because of the timing of the holiday,” said Toporek. “If it was their past practice to close on both days we wanted them to continue that. If they only closed on the first day, we weren’t looking for them to add another day.”
Toporek also contacted state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Dist. 17), whose district includes Piscataway. In a May 13 letter to interim schools superintendent Teresa M. Rafferty, Smith cited a stream of e-mails he had been provided among Toporek, teachers, the superintendent, and the governor’s office.
In light of Toporek’s concern, wrote Smith, proper guidelines were not followed allowing interested parties the opportunity to comment on the calendar. “I would respectfully request your review of and response to this important matter for the Jewish teachers, families, and students in Piscataway Township,” wrote Smith.