There will be no mention of religious holidays – including the Jewish High Holidays and Christmas – in the 2015-16 calendar for Montgomery County Schools. In an effort, school board members said, to obey the Constitution and respect the diversity of its students, they voted 7 to 1 to not mention any holiday while still giving students off for holidays that result in a high rate of absenteeism, which include the High Holidays.
During a Nov. 11 meeting, the school board approved next year’s calendar, which will either not list a reason the school is closed on a particular day or call its longer vacations winter or spring break.
The best way to treat all religions equally and with respect “is basically to be silent,” said school board president Philip Kauffman.
Under the proposal by Superintendent Joshua Starr, schools would be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur due to high absenteeism by students and teachers, but the names of the Jewish holidays would not be listed on the calendar. An amendment by school board member Rebecca Smondrowski removed the names of all religious holidays.
Board member Michael Durso was the lone dissenter.
During a 90-minute discussion, several board members called for closing schools for certain religious holidays, including the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, but were advised by board attorney Josh Civin that doing so would be illegal.
Smondrowski called the board’s vote “a no-win situation across the board” but “the most equitable option.”
A vote to eliminate mention of all religious holidays is merely “kicking the can down the road,” said board member Charles Barclay. “I just think, hopefully unintentionally, we come off very insensitively.”
Prior to the vote, about a half dozen people addressed the school board, mostly to push for recognition of Muslim holidays. Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal urged board members to erase what he called the stigma that places a burden on Muslims, saying Muslim students need to feel welcome and safe.
Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, director of social justice and interfaith initiatives at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, suggested to the board that any changes to the calendar be made to be more inclusive. “The idea is for everyone to feel welcome and respected.”
While approving the upcoming school calendar, the board acknowledged the need to study the issue further and keep a close eye on absenteeism for several holidays that are not currently days off. The policy now is to refrain from giving tests on any holiday and to give a student out for religious reasons an excused absence.
Prior to the afternoon meeting, Karen Barall, mid-Atlantic director of the Orthodox Union, said it makes sense to stop listing the Jewish holidays on the school calendar.
“I would support Starr’s decision,” she said. “The OU supports religious accommodations, and making public schools accommodating for different religions is something that we support.” Being accommodating is “not endorsing one religion over another,” Barall said.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac called it important that schools be closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but said he would prefer that the school district acknowledge the Jewish holidays.