The school district in Cinnaminson, N.J., has removed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as holidays on its school calendars, meaning students no longer have those days off, leaving the Jewish community confused and quite upset.
For parents in the district, many are wondering what will happen when their child isn’t in school that day because they are in synagogue.
Even more so, they’re wondering why they weren’t told about the decision from the start.
The mother of a first grader and a third grader in the school district, Tamara Bobrin found out in May about the decision only after a fellow parent mentioned it to her.
A fellow member of Temple Sinai, where Bobrin attends, is a school board member, so she asked him to explain how this came about — and why they weren’t told it was an agenda item.
“We had no idea this was even up for debate until it was signed, sealed and delivered,” Bobrin said.
For many, the shock came because there was no notification.
Superintendent Dr. Salvatore Illuzzi said the school calendar was an agenda item for a board meeting — which are public — in November 2015 and was posted online. After three versions of the calendar were put to a vote, this year’s calendar ultimately “won” and was posted in December.
Illuzzi justified the decision by citing a declining number of Jewish students.
This, he said, warranted the decision to keep school open on these days — as well as working with the Anti-Defamation League as far as guidelines about a school closing in observance of a religious holiday.
Illuzzi cited the ADL’s guide to Religion in the Public Schools, which says: “Public schools should not close or reschedule activities solely because of conflicts between the school calendar and religious holidays. However, schools may consider closing when large numbers of student and teacher absences are anticipated. Schools should still take great care in creating their schedules.”
“In the 70s, the board provided for the two Jewish holidays,” Illuzzi added. “Since that point, we have a decreasing Jewish population in this town.”
Per his estimation, 15 of the 400 professional and support staff are Jewish, and 80 of 2,570 students are Jewish.
That’s about 3 percent of the student population.
“We are assuming — and I have to say assuming because unless they self-identify, there’s no way to get the correct number,” he added.
He measured by finding the number of families who attend Temple Sinai — the only synagogue physically in Cinnaminson — as well as families who attend synagogues outside of Cinnaminson.
He noted that the Muslim population of the school has increased, which added to the decision to drop the Jewish holidays out of fairness.
Where Philadelphia has added holidays in observance of Muslim holidays for this school year, Illuzzi said they couldn’t do that.
“Rather than have [us] continuing with the Jewish holidays but not recognizing the Muslim holidays, the decision is to adhere to the law, which is we would not have any school closings for any religious holidays,” he said.
The school is closed for Easter and Christmas, however, because those are considered religious holidays that are also government holidays, he clarified, as most businesses are also closed those days.
Students are off on Good Friday, though not really considered a federal holiday, which falls on the first day of the district’s spring break, from April 14 to 21, 2017.
Having grown up in Cinnaminson and graduated from Cinnaminson High, Bobrin said there has always been a large Jewish presence.
“There were many, many Jewish students in my class, and there’s always been a strong Jewish presence here,” she said, “and to hear that off the cuff, ‘Oh by the way, we’re taking those holidays away’ — at least tell us, let us have some input.”
By having to choose whether to send their children to school for the day or attend services with the chance that they might miss material in class, Bobrin said there are further implications than a missed assignment.
“The other consideration that took us a second is it makes our students conspicuous,” she said. “Instead of everyone having off for the day, it’s, ‘Those Jewish children got to miss school that day because they had a holiday, let’s point at them and show how different they are.’”
But having to make that decision at all is really what bothers Bobrin, whose husband also always takes off of work for big holidays, but “especially the High Holidays.”
“Not having the holidays will be an issue,” she said. “My children will be staying home, and we will figure out the ramifications as far as classwork as we go.”
Another parent in the community said the decision is “devastating.”
“It’s bad enough that the calendar was two days for the holidays, and now it’s no days,” said Bonnie Matz-Orth, who has two children in the district. “Back in the day, it was two days for Rosh Hashanah so schools were closed for two days, then it became one day.”
While Illuzzi insists students will not be penalized for missing school and attending services, Matz-Orth is still concerned about the impact.
“From a parent’s perspective, we want our children to feel equal to one another that they can live and be free no matter what religion they are,” she said.
A board meeting took place on Aug. 30, where a number of parents and concerned community members spoke out against the decision.
Matz-Orth hoped the decision would be reversed.
“If we can appeal court cases, we can appeal this,” she said.
Illuzzi said he is working with Rabbi Boaz Marmon of Temple Sinai to work out a policy that encompasses all aspects of students missing school. They are working to create one overall policy to protect students from negative repercussions.
Marmon hopes that a stronger new policy would ensure that no tests are given or material is taught that a student who misses class to observe the holiday would have to make up.
Marmon, however, is thinking of not just the students affected by the change, but the teachers as well.
Teachers are entitled to just two personal days, he said, which wouldn’t cover the time needed if a teacher wanted to go to both days of Rosh Hashanah services, as well as Yom Kippur.
While he didn’t grow up in a school district that gave days off for Jewish holidays, he understands parents’ concerns.
“It was an expectation they had, and they had no reason to believe that would be changing. For the members of our community, it’s a very upsetting change to what’s been the status quo for a long time.
“I would hate to see a situation where whatever is the outcome of the days off that Jewish members of the community feel ostracized or cut out or ignored in their school district,” he said.
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