NJ schools add Diwali, Eid and June 19 holidays, but face backlash

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New Jersey’s growing diversity is transforming the public school schedule so students don’t have to choose between their religion and their education.

A growing number of school districts across the state are closing to observe new holidays, adding Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr or Lunar New Year to the more traditional Easter and Christmas and Yom Kippur.

This year, some 23 New Jersey public school districts — including Clifton, Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, Paramus, Ridgewood and Edison — will close for Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists.

The festival, a major holiday among American Indians, will be celebrated this year on October 24 and honors the victory of inner light over spiritual darkness. He is observed exchanging gifts and sweets, holding family gatherings, and lighting sparklers.

It’s “exciting news,” said Ankur Bhuva, who attends a Hindu temple in Paramus.

Yet the school calendar can also be full of landmines, as members of the Randolph school board in Morris County found this year when they scrapped one of the two days of Rosh Hashana, New Year’s. Jewish. The neighborhood was overwhelmed with complaints.

As the number of immigrants to America grew, so did religious diversity and pressure to recognize more holy days and cultural events. The number of American adults identifying as Christian fell to 65% in 2019down 12 percentage points from the previous decade, while non-Christians made up 7% of the population, the Pew Research Center found.

Montclair is the latest school district to add Eid al-Fitr to its calendar, and Paramus plans to add a day next year for the Muslim holiday, which celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Paramus will also close in the next school year for Diwali and the Lunar new yeara major holiday in East Asian cultures, as well as Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Other neighborhoods, such as Ridgewood, have already been closed on those days.

150 recognized public holidays

The New Jersey Commissioner of Education, with the approval of the State Board of Education, annually establishes a list of religious holidays for which districts must excuse a student’s absence, spokesman Michael Yaple said. of the commissioner.

The 2022-2023 list, which was released earlier this month, contains more than 150 occasions, including the birth of the Bab, celebrated by the Bahá’í Faith; Samhain, a Wiccan holiday; Maghi, celebrated by Sikhs; and Nowruz, a Zoroastrian holy day. Ramadan, Yom Kippur and the Nativity of Christ are also on the list of Muslim, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox Christian worshipers, respectively.

A Dwali celebration in Parsippany.  Nearly two dozen New Jersey school districts will close this year for the Hindu holiday.

Districts have the discretion to authorize additional excused absences for other religious dates beyond those approved by the department, Yaple added.

The state does not track which schools close on which holidays. Such decisions are made by individual school boards, based on the demographics of their own student populations, the spokesperson said.

When a school district takes a day off for a religious holiday, it “reflects that they expect many teachers and students to be absent,” said New Jersey School Boards spokeswoman Janet Bamford. Association. “It is an acknowledgment of the holidays that the community observes.”

For members of religious minorities, a day off is an important convenience as well as a sign of respect from the wider community.

Pina Shah, an accountant from Paramus, sends her daughter to a private school and her son to a magnet high school in Bergen County, where Diwali is not a day off but is considered an excused absence. Both schools organize cultural activities and embrace diversity, she said.

Still, she is content that her hometown public school district is inclusive enough to recognize Hindu needs in its schedules. Diwali, she said, “illuminates the inner soul. It is incumbent on our children to learn and embody the messages of the holiday: good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over ignorance. Including it in the school calendar as a holiday signifies inclusivity and makes the Indian community feel recognized.”

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Bhuva lives in Woodbridge but plans to move her family to Paramus, where they attend a Hindu temple for services. He’s glad he doesn’t have to worry about his son being penalized for taking a day off from school.

“It’s a special family time that is one of our most important holidays of the year,” he said.

New Jersey has the highest percentage of Hindus in the United States, at 3% of the population, largely due to the state’s large Native American community. New Jersey also has the highest number of Muslims in the country by percentage, also 3%, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Rajan Zed, president of the Nevada-based Universal Hinduism Society, added that closing schools for the holidays “means that Hindu families in these school districts will now be able to celebrate Diwali together at home with their children, as it should be observed.”

He called on all public and private schools in the state to make it a holiday.

disruptive to learning?

Yet not everyone is happy with the proliferation of vacations.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, a national civil rights group based in Cranford, noted that a growing number of young people identify as non-religious.

It can be “disruptive to the learning environment to close schools for every religious holiday”, he added. “It is also fundamentally unfair to deal with one or two religious groups for historical reasons while ignoring countless others.”

People cheer as a public speaker asks the Randolph School Board to keep schools closed during Rosh Hashana on March 22, 2022.

Rather than focusing on religious holidays, districts could embrace alternatives that embrace American diversity and values, such as International Women’s Day, Earth Day, Juneteenth and Election Day, a- he suggested.

“Schools should create schedules that send the message that all students, including atheists and members of minority faiths, are full members of the community and deserve equal treatment,” Fish said.

Fair Lawn Board of Education chairman Eugene Banta said his community added Diwali to the calendar this year due to changing demographics. Juneteenth has been added as a service learning day dedicated to learning the meaning of the day.

“The timeline continues to change as the composition of our community continues to change,” he said.

Adding days off for religious purposes may complicate matters for schools, which are required by state law to give students 180 days of instruction and complete by the end of June.

But Banta said the district is managing to overcome the challenges. “The administration always does a great job of balancing all of that. We can get most religious holidays on the calendar without any loss of instruction time,” he said.

Montclair added Eid al-Fitr as a vacation day after a fifth-grade student filed a petition with more than 2,000 signatures last year.

Among Muslim families, it’s a sign of welcome, said Ahmed Al-Shehab, the imam and president of the Fusion Community Center of North Jersey, a mosque in Paramus.

“The Muslim community in New Jersey is happy to see this happening in many school districts,” he said. “It certainly has a very positive impact on the morale of Muslim students in New Jersey.”

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @deenayellin

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