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Column: After scheduling a school year’s start on Rosh Hashana, Virginia Beach should consider its growing religious diversity

BY ERIC MICHAEL MAZUR

Virginia Beach Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence on Friday, Jan. 30, sent a letter to “Virginia Beach City Public School Jewish Community Families” because the first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year will fall on the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashana.

He noted correctly this is “the beginning of the holiest time of the year for the Jewish people.” Spence acknowledged the “many Jewish students, educators and administrators in our division who will be forced to prioritize education or religion by deciding whether to attend the first day or two of their school year.” And he seemed sympathetic that “choosing between religious observance and attending the first day of school is not an easy one.”

As comfort, he reminded those who received the letter that “religious holidays are excused absences for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.”

There is no doubt that managing over 15,000 employees and 65,000 students in nearly 90 different facilities is a challenge. But challenges such as this scheduling matter, which excludes people from joining their classmates and colleagues in starting the school year together, can be overcome.

School Board Chairperson Carolyn Rye, who represents the Lynnhaven District, has said she will make a motion during a meeting today to suspend the calendar and call for another recommended schedule. Her colleagues should support this effort.

Ideally, the School Board would regularly consider the increased diversity of our student population and educate themselves about this growing diversity so similar conflicts to not become a regular feature of our public life.

In December 2019, the school board in Montgomery County, Md., voted to recognize the Chinese Lunar New Year and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr – the festival marking the end of the month-long sun-up to sun-down fasting of Ramadan – as days off for students, adding them to the official recognition of two Jewish holy days.

These days off are not excused absences. They are days when the message communicated by the school system is that the holy days of non-Christians are as important as the holidays of Christians. Naturally, Christmas was already on the list of days off in Montgomery.

Students shouldn’t have to choose between conscientiously required religious observance and state-mandated school attendance.

The Montgomery County system has 165,000 students. The problem, then, is not one of logistics.

Accommodations almost always can be made. In the spring semester of my senior year in college, a friend of mine informed me that the school’s parents’ weekend for the upcoming fall semester would conflict with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (literally: “day of atonement”).

I approached a friend of mine who was serving as the student representative on the school’s board of visitors, and informed her that such a conflict would require Jewish students and their parents to make an impossible choice between observing one of the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar — a day that expects not only many hours in worship, but also a total abstention from eating and drinking for more than 24 hours — and attending a series of events dedicated to showcasing for parents their children’s intellectual and social lives.

I asked her if she could use her position to request a change. A few days later, my friend informed me that she had spoken to the board’s secretary, a senior member of the faculty who had been a part of the institution for decades. He had informed her that no change would be made, in part because “you just never know when those Jewish holidays are going to be,” and, in part, because “if we do it for the Jews we’ll have to do it for everyone.”

I told my friend that I could predict with great confidence when the Jewish holidays would be for the next thousand years. Yom Kippur would be on the tenth day of Tishrei for the foreseeable future, and then some. As for doing it for everyone if it is done for the Jews, I pointed out to my friend that this was kind of the point.

Actually, I think I might have said something like: “If we do it for the Christians, we’ll have to do it for everyone.”

To the best of my knowledge, for the coming semester parents’ weekend was moved to another weekend, the first in decades, I was told, on which there was no home football game scheduled.

As my response to my friend suggests, it is also not a problem that the dates of non-Christian holidays are hard to predict. Ask Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists when particularly holidays will occur, and they are likely to be able to tell you.

Of course, it may not be in a format with which Christians are familiar. Every religious community has its own way of reckoning time. The “secular” calendar familiar to most Americans was established by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582 to modify the Julian calendar that had been established by Julius Caesar. The most significant difference is that the Julian calendar added a “leap” day every four years, while the Gregorian calendar adds a “leap” day every four years except in years divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400: 2000 had a February 29; 2100 will not.

On the other hand, the Muslim calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, meaning that each month is either 29 or 30 days – depending on the appearance of the crescent moon – and the year is either 354 or 355 days long. This gives the feeling that Muslim holidays are observed 11 days “earlier” each year.

And the Jewish calendar is a hybrid of both a lunar and a solar measurement of the year. Months also are reckoned according to the phases of the moon, but in order to keep the Jewish calendar aligned with the coming of spring, an entire month – a “leap” month, as it were – is added in seven non-consecutive years in a 19-year cycle. This gives the feeling that Jewish holidays are unpredictable, hence the comment from the secretary of my alma mater’s board of visitors.

The best way to know where one is in the cycle is to buy a calendar that includes the Jewish months, or simply use the internet.

Every year, Jewish and Muslim students — and, increasingly, students of other faith traditions — must choose between their religion and their social, educational and vocational obligations.

Some are able to choose their conscientiously required religious obligations over their other commitments. Baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax each chose to sit out games whose dates conflicted with Jewish holy days. As a result, both became a different kind of hero in the Jewish world.

Asking children to make this choice is irresponsible, and asking parents to make it for their children is unfair.

Since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has noted that simply giving objecting students an opportunity to opt out of an activity in which everyone else participates ignores the coercive power that overwhelms the young in social environments such as the classroom and school-related events.

It seems intellectually dishonest to suggest that students would choose to miss the first day of the school year — a day that, aside from graduation exercises, may be the most appealing day on the school year calendar for most students — in favor of fulfilling what in the best of circumstances is considered a religious obligation. An excused absence is still an absence, which means that the “reward” for observing a conscientiously-mandated religious obligation is make-up work, gaps in understanding of materials due to the absence and –

 perhaps more importantly – a degree (or fear) of social stigmatization by differently religious (or non-religious) peers.

This is not the first time Virginia Beach City Public Schools have run afoul of the Jewish calendar. In 2014, the system identified three Saturdays — Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, a day on which many activities are restricted) to be used to make up for days missed due to inclement weather.

As our schools become home to a greater diversity of students, the problem will only become more complicated. Often this is because a preferred response is often one based on demographics. As the secretary of my alma mater’s board retorted, “If we do it for the Jews, we’ll have to do it for everyone.” The presumption is, as every kid on the playground knows, that the “majority rules.”

But as a people we are dedicated to certain principles, and the right of individuals to pursue their religious fulfillment free of government encumbrance has always been one of those principles, even if it was a notion rather limited in application at the outset.

If we are to teach our children meaningfully, we must teach them that we are a people of principle and not just of majoritarian politics.


Dr. Eric Mazur is the Religion, Law and Politics fellow at the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan University, where he also serves as the Gloria & David Furman Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies. The opinions expressed here are his alone, and do not represent those of the Center or the University.


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