Prom on Passover Rankles Teenagers In Illinois Suburb

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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For many American teenagers, the list of essential rites-of-passage is relatively short: Get a driver’s license, tear open a college acceptance letter and, whether or not you’re destined to be voted king or queen, attend the high school prom.

Jennifer Mann, a senior at Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill., who is headed to Indiana University in the fall, has numbers one and two covered. But on April 23, as most of her classmates don gowns and tuxedos and pile into limousines, she will be leaning to the left and sipping wine with her family.

This year, Warren High School’s prom is taking place on the first night of Passover.

The mix-up is “a huge sign of disrespect,” said Mann, who recently received the prom announcement inviting her to “the largest event of the year except for graduation.” Like many of her Jewish friends, she will not be attending. “This is like putting prom on Good Friday, or Easter or, like, Christmas Eve.”

While apologetic administrators claim that they have tried to change the date, a space large enough to accommodate roughly 1,500 juniors and seniors is scarce.

“We ensure, we promise, we know it will not happen again,” said Warren High’s lower-school principal, Steven Isoye, seemingly weary of the mishap.

The silver lining, it seems, is that Gurnee’s Jewish residents are using the conflict to make their presence known. As in other small but growing suburban Jewish communities, one sign of progress is, paradoxically, feeling comfortable enough to complain. Mann, president of her local United Synagogue Youth chapter, testified at a school board meeting this past September, after the school attended a color-guard competition on Yom Kippur, as well as in early March when the prom conflict came to light.

Ellen Wolintz-Fields, the first full-time rabbi at Gurnee’s Congregation Or Tikvah, has discussed the issue with school administrators. The real problem, she said, is the ongoing struggle to win greater consideration for Jewish students. Although Warren High is relatively diverse — with more than 30 % minority enrollment, according to the Illinois State Board of Education — the number of Jewish students is estimated at fewer than 100, and the school does not close for any Jewish holidays. As early as 2002, synagogue leaders asked officials to pay closer attention to scheduling conflicts, but “it fell on deaf ears,” Wolintz-Fields said. Since that time, her conservative congregation — which recently signed a letter-of-intent to buy its first building — has only continued to grow.

In Albany, N.Y., some 850 miles to the east, Jewish residents had better luck lobbying for change this spring. Albany High School’s junior prom was originally scheduled for April 30 — the last night of Passover, which is observed as a holiday by observant Jews. But the junior dance was moved to the following Saturday, because of what Rabbi Beverly Magidson called the city’s “long history of having observant Jewish kids, and of embracing diversity.” Her daughter, Sarah, who is junior at the school, had an alternate explanation. “The people on the prom planning committee have a lot of Jewish friends,” she said.

The new date, the following Saturday, is not without its own set of concerns. Come that weekend, it turns out, almost all the Albany juniors will have to balance prom with another teenage right-of-passage that is less appreciated: the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

“It really impacted everybody,” Magidson said of the change. “Everybody takes the SATs.”






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