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Back to School: Letters to the Editor

Comments from our readers about whether schools should be closed for the High Holidays

September 18, 2015

Editor’s Note: Every Friday, we publish a selection of letters our readers have sent in regarding articles and podcasts published the week prior on Tablet.

In response to Mark Oppenheimer’s article, “School’s Out—But Why?

I’m a freshman at Stony Brook University. Until this year, I attended public school in NYC, and am a practicing Jew. As a religious student growing up in NYC, I’ve always been incredibly grateful to have been given time off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I disagree with this article from the very beginning, with the part about students missing “key note-passing” and the like, suggesting that what happens in school is so petty that it can be easily missed and made up. While it may be true that kids in lower grades have fewer major assignments to take care of, missing school can be very difficult even for kids who always get good grades. For people who struggle academically, it can be even harder, and I’m grateful to the system that gave me the chance to fully celebrate my holidays without having to panic about the academic consequences. Now that I’m in a (non-sectarian) college that doesn’t give students “off” for the holidays, I’m felt the stress of taking care of my work before sundown tonight, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. It isn’t the end of the world to miss class for a holiday, but it’s much, much easier to have the day off from the beginning.

As for the author’s suggestion regarding kids getting three “floating” days off, I feel like there’s a fundamental distinction between a kid taking off from school and an adult taking time off of work. As far as I know, virtually every school has an attendance policy that allows students to miss class as an excused absence if it’s for a valid religious observance. Kids aren’t going to be fired for missing school. The problem lies in making up the workload, particularly when the same religious observance would keep you from doing any work on the days you’ve taken off. Having the “floating” days is no different from what the policies tend to be right now. The point is that if the whole school is closed, making up work (especially so early in the year) isn’t an issue. And I’ve never found it to be that having Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off was disruptive to learning. Kids can deal with a long weekend or a couple of days off. If they didn’t forget everything they’ve learned over the summer, they won’t forget it between Tishrei 1 and 2.

In terms of being publicly proud of my religious identity, that’s never been an obstacle, or something I shy away from. I’m lucky to have grown up with people who are extremely accepting of my Judaism, and I’ve never had to make it a secret. I don’t see it as a badge of cultural pride to walk to shul when everyone else is going to school. In fact, it can feel very socially uncomfortable to be acting so obviously different from classmates. There are so many other ways to express pride in a cultural identity, that I doubt anyone’s sense of self is diminished when their non-Jewish counterparts have the day off too. Plus, for kids who live with less-than-tolerant peers, publicly appearing different in order to observe the holidays could even be a safety risk. While proudly separating oneself from the pack is a noble idea, it can be a major source of anxiety, discomfort, and even ostracization for young children who may not yet be equipped to explain and defend what appear to be religious peculiarities. To expect that of children as young as four or five years old is unfair; there’s so much about my religion that I admire and can defend now that I could never have explained as a kindergartner.

This article seems removed from the day-to-day concerns of Jewish students, at least as I’ve always seen them. I can certainly survive having to miss class to observe my holidays, but it’s worth paying attention to how much easier (and maybe even safer) it can be to have the days off.

— Rachel Chabin, Long Island, NY

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The notion of closing public schools on Jewish holidays was totally foreign to me when I came to live in the NY/NJ area. Growing up in the Denver Public Schools, we came back after Jewish holidays—not just Rosh Hashanah, but any and all Jewish holidays—with a note from home, and reported to the the office for an excused absence form. When we lived on the north side, where there were exactly two other Jewish families, there was no line. When we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, there was a long line. The teachers let us make up work and tests, but it was our responsibility. Fine.

The situation was completely the opposite for my mother, who taught in the Denver Public Schools system. She was entitled to exactly three personal days off. Being an honest person, she was tortured by the idea of having to use her sick days for Jewish holidays. But she also did not want to violate Yom Tov. She went through the agony of trying to figure out what to do every year. She did not expect that there was an understanding administration there to help her.

“I believe the answer to the issue Mark Oppenheimer raises answer is: give teachers more personal days to use as they wish, and provide excused absences for students who do not violate Yom Tov. But then I want to see those kids in shul, and not hear that they claim the days and then use them for everything except religious experiences, (whether in a congregational setting or doing private soul-searching with their family at the park).

— Deborah Miller, West Nyack, NY

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I do not understand the problem. The local school board chooses what days the students will be in school, and what days they will have off. The local school board makes this determination for a number of objective reasons.

“In the end, so long as the local school board schedules the school calendar for 180 days, plus a given number of potential “snow” days (or whatever they locally call the extra days added for inclement weather), or whatever metric is set by the state board of education. So long as the students get the requisite days IN school, who cares what we call the days OUT of school?

— Ron Isaacson, Germantown, MD

* * * *

As a Jewish resident of the village of Bronxville in Westchester County, NY, I would be deeply saddened to see our school district discontinue its practice of closing for the Jewish High Holidays. Bronxville has a shameful history of restrictive, racist, and anti-Semitic housing practices designed to keep non-White, non-Christian families out of the school district’s one square mile. Those practices are now gone, though the community remains quite homogeneous and pricey enough to limit diversity.

But little by little our community is opening up to families that don’t fit the old mold. That schools close for the Jewish High holidays is an important symbolic nod to this evolution. Closing Bronxville schools for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur certainly helps my family to feel welcome and valued; as Jews, we are a tiny minority in our little square mile community.

As for floating “personal days” in place of set holidays, what a shame it would be to miss the opportunity to mark our neighbors’ special holidays. Not everyone in Bronxville is celebrating the Jewish New Year, but thanks to the public school district calendar, now everyone knows it exists.

— Elizabeth Planet, Bronxville, NY