Schools Will Observe Jewish, Muslim Holidays

August 28, 2013
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Addressing the growing religious diversity in the City’s public schools, administrators and School Committee members approved a school calendar for the upcoming year that observes Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious holidays for the first time in the City’s history.

While the Christian Good Friday holiday has always been a day when schools were closed, Superintendent Paul Dakin said it had become clear recently that the schools need to address other religions as well – as much for logistical purposes as for equity.

The schools will now be closed on four religious holidays starting this year.

“We’re treating all religions equally on their holy days,” said Dakin. “It was a move to treat them equal by giving everyone the day off, such as we’ve always done with Good Friday. It does break up some continuity in September, but our kids and teachers are as much in other religions now as they are in Protestantism or Catholicism. It had to be we went to school on all religious days – meaning we would not go on Good Friday – or we give other religions a day off. We discussed it a lot and decided to add the days.”

In addition to Good Friday (April 18, 2014), the Revere Schools will also observe two days for the Jewish Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 5th and 6th) and one day for the Muslim Eid al-Adha (Oct. 15th).

Dakin said there were not enough students from other religions – such as Buddhism – to warrant entire school closures. However, those students would be accommodated individually, he said.

The move came as demographics have switched dramatically in the city, with the Muslim population growing at far greater rate right now than any other demographic group. With so many Muslim students and parents involved in the public schools, last year there were major problems on the one Muslim holy day.

“The Muslim faith now is deep in the community and there are lots of kids that cannot attend school on their holy days,” Dakin said. “There were a few hundred kids that would miss on a Muslim holy day at the high school and that was a logistical problem. On the flip side, we don’t have a lot of Jewish students, but we have a lot of Jewish teachers. On their holy days, we would have about 50 teachers out. That also proved difficult.”

Cambridge Public Schools were one of the first districts in the state to recognize all religious holidays last year, and it is presumed that many other districts – like Revere – will follow suit.

In the Muslim community, religious leaders said they were grateful to be recognized by the schools and to allow their children to have the day to spend with family.

“There are thousands of Muslims in Revere now,” said Mohamed Lamaallem, executive director of the Al Huda Society in Chelsea – which is heavily attended by Revere residents. “Muslims are a part of American society now…We certain thank them for giving our kids the day off so they can celebrate with family. We don’t have a lot of major holidays – just two of them – but people are required to take the day off. At some time, we hope that it would be something that is approved by the state Department of Education and not just the individual school districts.”

Lamaallem said the October holiday is actually the Holiday of Sacrifice, and it marks Abraham’s obedience to God. After a time of prayer, Muslims travel to farms in rural Massachusetts in order to slaughter a lamb. Many farmers in the state have become accustomed to accommodating the religious observation.

The only other major holiday, Lamaallem said, is the observance of the last day of Ramadan – which is this Thursday – and currently falls in the summer time when school is out.

Rabbi Joseph Berman of Temple B’nai Israel said he believes it’s an important milestone

“This is an important change that reflects the religious make-up of students and teachers in the Revere public schools,” he said. “We are blessed to live in such a religiously diverse city with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and non-religious neighbors.”

And it’s Rabbi Joseph Berman, Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel.

Meanwhile, Father George Szal, of Immaculate Conception Church, said he welcomed the decision to allow students to practice their faiths at home.

“Because we don’t allow prayer or Bible reading in our public schools anymore, I certainly support including holidays in the school calendar for Christian, Jewish and Muslim students,” he said this week. “Our country, and indeed Western civilization itself, is based upon a Judeo-Christian ethic in which Islam itself largely shares. As George Washington said about religion in general in his farewell address, ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.’ It is a wonderful thing that our School Department has decided to help the students and staff practice of their respective faith. Now, if only those concerned would actually see their holy days as an opportunity to celebrate their faith, and not simply as another day off, we might actually improve the security and morality of our civic life.”

Dakin said he hasn’t had any push back from the community at large, but he wouldn’t rule out some objection in the days to come.

“Some people may not like it, but it’s either we had some days off or no days off,” said Dakin. “You would expect to have opposition, but I haven’t yet had the ‘Why are you doing this for them?’ arguments. That’s surprising given the nature of things sometimes in this community, but maybe it’s also a sign that things have changed. My whole point is we have to be equal.”

School has begun the new session yesterday, Aug. 27th, though the McKinley School started prior to that.