Garner Cleveland Record

May 16, 2014

Jews urge Wake County to keep Yom Kippur teacher workday

The Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary is lobbying the Wake County school board to keep the Yom Kippur workday proposed for 2015, saying Jewish students and staff shouldn’t be forced to decide between school and their faith.

The Jewish community is lobbying the Wake County school board to not schedule classes on the holiest day of their calendar.

School board members are considering rejecting a 2015-16 schedule for traditional-calendar schools because they say it’s inconvenient for families to have a midweek teacher workday that coincides with Yom Kippur on Sept. 23, 2015. The Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary is lobbying the school board to keep the Yom Kippur workday, saying Jewish students and staff shouldn’t be forced to decide between school and their faith.

“It is the obligation of the majority to recognize and respect the needs of the minorities when it doesn’t adversely impact on education,” Barry Schwartz, the federation’s executive director, said Tuesday.

School board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said she has already received several messages this week in support of keeping the workday on Yom Kippur. The calendar vote is scheduled for next Tuesday.

“We have heard the comments from the community and will give them careful consideration,” Kushner said.

This wouldn’t be the first time that North Carolina’s largest school system has found itself at odds with the Jewish community.

In 2003, Wake used Yom Kippur as a weather makeup day to replace a day lost to Hurricane Isabel despite pleas from the Jewish community to use a different day. Board members picked Yom Kippur over options such as using the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Each year, a school district committee made up of teachers, principals, administrators, parents and community members develops a schedule for traditional-calendar schools, which educate the majority of Wake’s 153,000 students. The committee has historically tried to schedule a teacher workday on either Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, or Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year.

On teacher workdays, students don’t have classes. Teachers can get permission to take off on some workdays. Wake builds in 15 workdays that take place before classes start, during the school year and after classes end.

A draft 2015-16 calendar was presented in April. Board members asked for changes because the calendar had winter break start Dec. 23, a Wednesday, and not on the Monday.

Last week, the school board received three revised calendars that had Dec. 21 and Dec. 22 changed from school days to workdays. While reviewing those alternatives, school board member Bill Fletcher questioned holding a workday on Sept. 23, a Wednesday in 2015 that coincides with Yom Kippur.

“It’s an outlier from where we’ve got every other workday,” Fletcher said at the meeting. “Every other workday is connected to a weekend – either a Friday or a holiday, or a Monday. And it’s conspicuous in its location there. It would seem that moving that to be contiguous with a weekend would be consistent with the rest of the calendar.”

School administrators agreed to look at moving the Yom Kippur workday.

Last Thursday, two draft calendars that drop the Yom Kippur workday were presented to a school board committee. One option moves that workday to Feb. 16 to give families four days off during Presidents Day weekend. The other option moves the workday to April 25 so that teachers would have a day that month for getting caught up on paperwork.

During Thursday’s meeting, Kushner said that the district can make it clear to Jewish parents that under school board policy, their children can receive an excused absence for their religious faith.

Fletcher, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, said last week that federal law requires the board to base calendar decisions on likely attendance for a day and not whether it’s a religious holiday.

Schwartz, the executive director of the Jewish Federation, is also a member of the district’s calendar committee. He said it’s not unprecedented to hold a midweek workday. For instance, traditional-calendar students have a workday scheduled this fall on Sept. 25, a Thursday that coincides with Rosh Hashanah.

“There are times when it makes more sense to have a workday midweek for various reasons,” he said.

Schwartz said it’s significant that educators who make up the majority of the calendar committee didn’t think it would have a negative impact on education to hold the workday on a Wednesday.

Schwartz said he hopes school leaders will have more consideration for the growing number of Jewish families in the district than was shown when he attended schools in Raleigh in the 1970s when classes were held on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“I would hope that we would not turn back the clock,” he said.

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