High Holy Days Are School Days in R.I.

By Maia Efrem

Published August 11, 2010, issue of August 20, 2010.
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For the first time in about 30 years, Providence, R.I., public schools will remain open during the Jewish High Holy Days this fall, a decision that came as an unpleasant surprise to the local Jewish community.

In a meeting with Jewish community leaders, school officials cited as their rationale for keeping schools open on Rosh Hashanah a shrinking community with fewer Jewish students in public schools, and a reluctance to disrupt school continuity with a day off during the first week of school. The Jewish New Year falls this year on Thursday, September 9, and Friday, September 10. Yom Kippur, the other major High Holy Day, falls on a weekend this year.

Teachers and students — via their parents — have been assured that they will not be penalized for taking days off to observe Rosh Hashanah, nor will teachers be docked sick days for doing so.

Martin Cooper, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, said he was perplexed and taken aback by the announcement, especially since the school system was spared any need to close this year on Yom Kippur. He said Jewish leaders would have accepted a compromise in which the schools closed on just the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

“What I’m most worried about is this setting a precedent not just in Providence, but in other [school] districts in Rhode Island,” Cooper said. “Once you have something in place, it’s harder to change.”

The High Holy Days, however, seem to be no problem this year for the nearby districts of Barrington and Cranston. Both districts stayed open on the Jewish High Holy Days last year, but have decided to close for the upcoming school year.

Providence Schools Department spokeswoman Christina O’Reilly said the district would re-evaluate the possibility of closing schools next year, depending on when the holidays fall on the calendar. “We have an obligation to keep kids in school as long as possible for continuity; we know that breaks in learning are not conducive to education, but that is not to say that we will never close schools for the holidays again,” she said.

According to O’Reilly, the Providence school district has experienced an increase of Hispanic and Muslim students, while more Jewish students are attending private schools. She was unable to provide official data to support this; as a government agency, the Providence Public School District is barred from asking students about their religious faith, because of concerns about separation of religion and state. All decisions were the result of “anecdotal changes,” O’Reilly said.

Surveys by JFRI show a decline in Providence’s Jewish population to 9,500 families in 2002 from about 10,000 families in 1994. More recent data were unavailable, making estimates of the current Jewish student population difficult. The 2002 survey also found that only 55% of Jewish students between ages 6 and 12 were enrolled in public schools.

“This was not done with malice,” said Rabbi Wayne Franklin of Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, who attended the meeting with school officials.

Though there were “unpleasant situations” in the past where teachers gave harder exams to students who came back after the High Holy Days, and Jewish teachers faced derision by their peers, “it is old history,” he said.

But Cooper saw the school district’s decision as a “wakeup call for a community that has become lazy.”

“If the Jewish community is not going to take this into consideration and care, then maybe there should be school on the holidays,” he said. “If we’re going to be strong, then we’re strong, but if we’re weak, then we will be weak.”

Contact Maia Efrem at feedback@forward.com

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