By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
PLANO — The Plano ISD board of trustees is reviewing its religious holiday policy after board member Yoram Solomon brought up the frustration of several Jewish parents in the district — including himself.
“We are putting parents and kids between a rock and a hard place,” Solomon said after citing his own daughter’s example on Yom Kippur.
“My older daughter wanted to stay home and fast, and did,” he said.
But his younger daughter had two tests and a presentation.
“I was a bad Jew and forced her to go to school,” Solomon said.
There were more than 50 complaints about the policy, mostly through email, from Jewish and Muslim families. Solomon pointed out that most of the issues — perhaps 95 percent — could be resolved by simply acknowledging the holiest days observed, including Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and not allowing major testing or events on those dates.
By the end of the board workshop Tuesday, Oct. 18, president Missy Bender directed two assistant superintendents, Susan Modisette (Campus Services) and Karla Oliver (Government, Community and Planning Initiatives) to explore options and return with a plan or input for further discussion, likely in January or February.
Parents Julie Liberman and Lindsay Feldman waited for nearly three hours for the panel to address the topic Tuesday. It was the last item on the agenda, and the discussion did not begin until 8:49 p.m. This, however, was an important enough issue for them to stick around and listen to, even if public input was only provided through the emails to Solomon and other board members.
Stigmatization of Jewish students
“It was prompted by an email I sent when our daughter had a field trip on Rosh Hashanah,” Liberman said. “I immediately told the school, thought they might change it. I was told ‘your daughter is welcome to go with another class on another day.’ It was accommodation, but she was standing out.”
Liberman said that only adds to the stigmatization of Jewish students, something she feels very personally from having grown up in the only Jewish family in a small town.
“To say the Lord’s Prayer at my graduation, I chalked it up to living in Mt. Vernon, Illinois,” she said. “It’s harder for me to accept it as an ‘oops’ with a vibrant Jewish community. Here, you say Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, someone knows what that means.”
Current policy, as in Dallas, Garland and Richardson, allows students to take off a holiday along with the day before and the day after for travel, but does not provide any differentiation between the high holy days and minor holidays like Chanukah. And while the administration provides a list of holidays to staff, as is also done in Richardson, it is up to teachers and officials to decide whether or not to move major tests or events.
Some Jewish parents have indicated that it is still common to find significant activities scheduled on the holidays, and a resistance by schools to make changes.
“My feelings are there is a general lack of awareness and interest, at the elementary level, to understand the fundamental differences between our highest holy days and the religion in general,” Feldman said.
She said the response to her concerns over scheduling and other separation of church and state issues has largely been “very much like ‘not my problem.’ ”
Liberman pointed to college fairs on Yom Kippur. And when a Jewish student is told they can do an event on another day, Feldman said it brings up another problem: “Do you want her to explain why she is different?”
“We already have this stigma,” Liberman said.
No flexibility in make-up tests
Solomon encountered an issue with accommodation as well, part of the reason his daughter went to school on Yom Kippur.
“She decided to observe this (holiday), and the teachers said with a good intention, you will get an opportunity to make up the test,” he said.
This accommodation did not make it easier.
“All three scheduled (the makeups) the same day, same hour. One teacher said, decide which one you will take,” Solomon told the board.
But the blame, he said, is not on the teachers, but the administration.
“What if that list had 10 days, really high holy days? Then we know what to do,” he said.
Feldman sent the board a letter after the meeting that included some resources. The JCRC Education Initiative, she pointed out, sends notices to schools with holidays marked three years in advance.
As for the board’s directives, “we give them guidance, but the guidance is too vague and broad,” Solomon said. Not only are high holidays not specifically listed, but the calendar overstates days of significance by listing 109 holidays. 56 Jewish holidays are listed, 23 of them highlighted.
“I understand why a principal would say that’s too much to ask,” he said.
He proposed keeping it to days like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover and limiting only important activity, like major evaluations.
“I ask people, what do you need? I don’t remember anybody complaining about tests on Tu B’Shvat or Purim,” Solomon said. “We need a better way to refine. We are overwhelming the schools and the principals.”
He also said not a single person asked to have school off for the entire district on those days, but rather to just restrict activities out of sensitivity to the students.
The board took a significant amount of time listening to Solomon and asking for clarification on issues. While they largely expressed sympathy with parents’ frustration, a few officials did express concerns over specific issues with such a change.
For instance, who decides what’s a major holiday? Board member David Stolle said a rabbi and a non-practicing Jew will respond differently.
“I don’t think it is right for a government body to decide what are the important days,” Stolle said, although he did say narrowing the list was common sense.
Modisette repeatedly brought up the shrinking of available testing days if a number of days were ruled out.
“As we map it out, you may have a day or so of wiggle room. Ten days? That’s a pretty significant amount, especially if they fall close together,” she said.
But there appeared to be agreement that the issue needed further study.
“My takeaway is to research this,” Bender said. “What are other districts doing?”
Ending on that note left parent Barry Hirsch annoyed.
“Why are we reinventing the wheel?” he asked Solomon, noting that there are places where this issue was decided years ago.
But overall, Solomon was pleased with the result.
“Don’t forget the end goal, to solve a problem,” he said shortly after the meeting.