High Holidays necessitate religious education for public school system

By Amy Sorter
Special to the TJP

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker knew that some students in his congregation at Colleyville-based Beth Israel were being penalized for taking time off from school during the High Holidays.
“I used to send a letter to the schools indicating that kids will be out on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the dates and the reasons why,” explained Cytron-Walker, whose congregation includes students that attend schools in the Grapevine-Colleyville, Southlake, Birdville and Keller Independent School Districts. “But we’d still have difficulties and challenges.” These ranged from unexcused absences, to missing an AP test and not being able to make it up, to losing one’s place in band, football or other extracurricular activity.
See an Excused AbsenceLetter
This year, Cytron-Walker moved from informing to educational outreach, writing and circulating a letter for parents to give to teachers, coaches and administrators. The letter eloquently outlines the purpose of the High Holidays and their spiritual significance. “The closest way to understanding the spiritual significance of these Holy Days is to compare them with Christmas and Easter,” Cytron-Walker’s letter reads. The letter then goes on to say that many Jews end up taking off work or school to spend “this sacred time with family and community . . .”
Though it is too soon to tell if this letter will lead to more understanding of, and fewer challenges to, students who observe the holidays, it does bring up questions as to the flexibility of Bible-Belt school districts when it comes to handling Jewish holiday absences.

Unawareness, not spite

Issues such as those shared by Cytron-Walker are troubling. They are not, however, necessarily widespread. Nor are they necessarily signs of anti-Semitism. For the most part, educators and adult extracurricular leaders tend to be more rigid about Jewish holiday absences due to unawareness, rather than bigotry.
Rabbi Mandy Kesselman, who heads Chabad of Frisco, noted that, a few years ago, some Frisco ISD schools scheduled homecoming during Yom Kippur. “The parents I met with were very upset,” he said. “But from my experience, those things are scheduled because the districts don’t know.”
For North Texas public school districts, Jewish holidays can be confusing, because they travel all over the secular calendar. “They move,” said Cheryl Drazin, regional director with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “We can’t expect every public-school system in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to know when the holidays are coming up, and to follow them.”
There is also the question of what constitutes an “excused” absence, a definition that comes into play, especially with extracurricular activities. Drazin said that, depending on the district, an absence is an absence is an absence. “If it’s a universal rule, and any absence during the week doesn’t allow you to play, or perform or take part in extracurricular activities, there is no workaround there,” she noted. However, if the definition ends up being limited only to illness, for example, “that’s when we need to step in and let the districts know about accommodation,” Drazin commented.
The ADL sends information about Jewish holiday dates to districts throughout North Texas. However, “that information has to trickle down from the district to the school with maybe one Jewish child,” Kesselman said. “Sometimes that information trickles down to the local principal, sometimes not.”
Adding to the confusion are the different levels of High Holiday — and other Jewish holiday — observances. Some families observe Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre, and that’s it. Then there are families who will observe the entire two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday, as well as Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. Educators and administrators who see some Jewish kids not taking any time off from school might not understand the other Jewish kids who are not in school for one or two days.
Furthermore, “some don’t understand that the holidays start the evening before,” Cytron-Walker said. “That, for Rosh Hashanah, it involves a celebratory dinner, or with Yom Kippur, a service and preparation for a fast. Some might be saying that, this year, Yom Kippur is on a Saturday — so what’s up with that Friday night thing?”
The essential outreach from parents
Drazin said that, as there aren’t a vast majority of Jewish students in the North Texas public school districts, parents should both provide the information and understand what the district rules are. “Assuming the best intent from the districts’ sides,” she said, “it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to non-Jews, until they understand that, for example, Yom Kippur is more sacred than any other Friday night.”
Kesselman also strongly suggested that parents inform their children’s schools about the Jewish holidays, rather than assuming the school already knows about it. “Do that as soon as possible,” he said. “Schools don’t want to find out, the day before, that the kids won’t be there. Or the day after, when the children don’t show up for school.” If the schools push back or become difficult about absences? “I can send a letter that verifies and clarifies,” Kesselman said. “But we really haven’t had issue with that.”

Knowledge is power

In other words, rather than assuming that school districts already understand the importance of the High Holy Days, Jewish families should assume the opposite. Part of the reason why Cytron-Walker drafted, and circulated, his letter, was to not only inform the Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, and Carroll Independent School Districts about the holidays, but also to fully educate the educators on what they mean.
He added that the issue isn’t with the schools saying that the absences are excused absences; he’s fine with that. Rather, his concern lies with pressures placed on Jewish students for observing their faith. “The bottom line is that, in our community, we fortunately don’t see a lot of anti-Semitism,” he said. “We do experience a lot of ignorance, and I don’t mean that in the negative sense. People truly don’t understand.”
His hope is that the letter, which was sent in late August to Beth Israel parents for circulation to teachers and principals, will impart knowledge to the non-Jewish community. The letter has received positive feedback from the parents so far, though Cytron-Walker said he’s not sure how effective it will be until the High Holidays. “We’ll see how well this works this year,” he added. “If it doesn’t work, then I’ll try something else.”

Other resources

In addition to the ADL or your rabbi, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas or the JCRC in Fort Worth and Tarrant County are also great resources if you are having issues with your public school:

  • JCRC Dallas, Anita Zusman Eddy, executive director, 214-615-5292
  • JCRC Fort Worth and Tarrant County, Howard Rosenthal chair, contact Bob Goldberg, Federation executive director, 817-559-0892
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