Navigate to Community section

School’s Out—But Why?

Our public schools have few Jews left. We should let everyone go to school on Jewish holidays.

Mark Oppenheimer
September 11, 2015

Once again this year, the public schools in New Haven, Connecticut, will be closed for the first day of Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur. My children can go to synagogue secure in the knowledge that they won’t need to explain their absences, won’t need to make up work, and won’t miss out on key note-passing, lunch-table gossip, and impromptu schoolyard jams to Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” The schools have done the multicultural, pluralist thing and, like numerous other American school districts, accommodated my minority group.

And it’s time that they stop. I’ll say it loud: I’m here, I’m Jewish, I have three daughters in public school, and I think the rest of you should go to school on my holidays.

Sure, there are good reasons—in a limited number of cities—to cancel school for religious holidays. In New York City, for example, with substantial numbers of Jewish students and teachers, it makes no sense to open the schools when there would be a high level of absenteeism. The same is true of Newton, Massachusetts, Lower Merion, Pennsylvania—insert your own famous Jewish burg here.

But in many cities, including my own, the tradition is outdated and absurd. New Haven once had high numbers of Jewish teachers or students, but it no longer does. In my daughters’ school of 450 students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, there are, I think, about 20 Jewish students, less than 5 percent of the school; there’s one elementary school in town that may have slightly more Jews. But on the whole, I doubt the district has more than 100 students who’d skip school on the Jewish High Holidays.

No city tracks its students by religious group, so it’s hard to say for sure, but I bet many other cities are in the same boat. In part, this low number is a result of Jews moving, diffusing throughout many suburbs, but it’s also a result of the near-universal trend of Orthodox Jews sending their children to private religious schools. Fifty years ago, Jews who identified as Modern Orthodox sometimes attended public schools, but almost none do now. Many less religious Jews, too, use private schools, Jewish or secular.

And teacher absenteeism is no longer a concern. A half-century or century ago, public-school teaching was a popular profession for Jews, who faced discrimination in other professions and often couldn’t afford graduate or professional school; 50 years ago, many large cities couldn’t have staffed their schools on the Jewish holidays. Now few Jews go into public-school teaching (alas), which makes it unlikely that any one school would suffer high faculty absenteeism on the holidays.

But numerous towns with, I feel certain, few Jewish teachers or students still close schools on the Jewish holidays. Small towns like Andover, Massachusetts, Branford, Connecticut, and Bronxville, New York. Or large cities like Los Angeles, whose public-school student body is only 15 percent non-Hispanic white, of which only a subset would be Jewish (not all Jews are white, of course, and it’s possible some of the many Persian Jews in Los Angeles identify as Asian). Many of these cities could comfortably keep the schools open with minimal disruption.

Here I should say that I am pretty skeptical of the value of much of what passes for school, public or private. I don’t think there’s inherent value in more school; I think a lot of terrific learning goes on outside the classroom, or outside traditional classrooms. But if we’re going to have school, let’s pick our school days, and days off, logically.

So, here’s a better idea: What if schools with small Jewish populations stayed open on Jewish holidays, but all students got three floating days off, which they could use for religious holidays—or for much-needed personal days, or for family vacations? Of course, in cities where there would be high absenteeism on Rosh Hashanah, or Eid al-Adha, or Three Kings Day, there would remain a good reason to close schools on those days.

The advantages are obvious. Especially when the Jewish holidays come early, the days off really disrupt the learning process. Just as the chaos is dying down, just as students have found the right sections and everyone has their books—just as learning is beginning in earnest—school pauses. No reason non-Jews should interrupt their learning so a tiny minority of Jewish students can go to synagogue.

And then there’s the advantage for the Jews. It’s OK, ennobling even, for minority groups, at certain times of the year, to look different and act differently from the majority. Getting dressed up and walking to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, walking past non-Jewish classmates heading to school, is practice for being proud, comfortable Jews in a pluralist society, where not everyone will know our traditions, and where sometimes we’ll have to answer questions.

Some Jews, like some Muslims or Mormons or Seventh-Day Adventists, eat differently from others. Like the Amish, some of us dress differently. And sometimes we can’t attend events scheduled around the calendars of a majority-Christian country. That’s more than just fine: It’s a helpful reminder of our uniqueness, and of how fortunate we are to live in a country that does not merely tolerate our uniqueness, but celebrates it.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.