If school is closed but nobody knows why, does it count as a holiday?
That’s essentially the koan-esque question currently facing the Montgomery County Board of Education. The Maryland county, which is included in the Washington D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria area, announced it won’t include the names of religious holidays on its calendar for the 2015-2016 school year, even as it continues to close for them. The district’s Board of Education voted seven to one in favor of the proposal.
The issue of how—and whether—to designate next year’s religious holidays first came up in the spring when Muslim community leader Saqib Ali floated the idea of including the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha on the school’s holiday calendar. This year Eid al-Adha, known as the festival of sacrifice, fell on the same day as Yom Kippur and thus wouldn’t have required an additional school holiday. A counterproposal suggested including a parenthetical on the calendar stating that “Eid al-Adha also falls on this date.” Ali instead requested that the holiday be listed as “Yom Kippur/Eid al-Adha.”
“We need to see equal treatment,” Ali told the school board, according to the Washington Post. “Here is a case where, on a piece of paper — this is strictly a symbolic issue — but on this day when schools are closed, even on this day, the Jewish holidays are given sort of precedence or elevated.”
The issue came up as early as last November, when the Muslim community requested that two major Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends Ramadan, be included on the calendar for the 2014-15 school year. The board responded that neither of these holidays would fall on school days in 2014 and therefore didn’t need to be included. (In 2014, Eid al-Fitr fell in July and Eid al-Adha occurred on a Saturday.)
The question of what days constitute holidays—or, for observant Jews, yom tovs—has in fact long been disputed within the Jewish community. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in 2011, Jews living in Israel observe most holidays for one day, while those outside of Israel typically observe them for two. (This tradition took root when, after the Temple was destroyed, Jews were alerted to holidays by smoke signals and word of mouth. Sending a messenger from Jerusalem took time, so Jews would celebrate a holiday for two days to ensure that at least one of these days would be the correct day.)
Ultimately, removing holiday names from a school calendar is unlikely to disorient Jews in Montgomery County about their days of observance. The area contains a significant Jewish population; for four decades, the county has observed Jewish holidays in order to accommodate the large number of teachers and students that would otherwise be absent.
Still, school superintendent Joshua Starr has said, “decisions about closing schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, specifically, are not based on honoring or favoring a particular, religious, cultural, or ethnic group.” Whether or not the district’s decision might communicate some preferential treatment, though, will certainly be seen in the coming days.
Anna Altman is a writer living in Brooklyn.