It is hard to imagine a more significant holy day for Jews. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. It is set in autumn since it’s connected to the agricultural societies of the ancient Near East, i.e. the time of sowing the seed. It is also a day of reckoning where G-D (whose name is too sacred to spell or say) reviews the deeds of his people and subscribes in the “book” of life who was righteous, who was not, and those who should have 10 days to reflect, repent, and become righteous. This year Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of school and that fact has caused a kerfuffle.
Right now the controversy is centered on the start of school of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District although the conflict could be statewide at some point. The school board dismissed a grievance initially filed by the teachers’ union on behalf of one of its teachers. The argument was that it was an easy fix to change the start of the school year. While teachers and/or pupils can take the day off for religious reasons, the start of school is a very important day since it sets the tone for the rest of the relationship between teacher and student. After the 2020-21 school year, even more so, the proponents of the delay contend, teacher and pupil should start on their educational journey together.
Enter the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. Spokeswoman Stephanie Hague said, “Jewish educators and families are not asking for anything egregious. They are asking for the first day of school to not be on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar.” It is important to note that in the past the Jewish community did not protest about schools being open on Jewish holidays as long as there was the opportunity to exercise religious freedom. The first day of school is the focus of contention here.
I agree with the union position and that of the Alliance. The first day of school, particularly following the isolation of students during the last school year, should make it a no-brainer to embark on learning together. Other school districts have put off the opening of school precisely because they recognize the problem here. It is not persuasive nor should it be considered that because our Jewish brethren are a minority that we do not have to acquiesce. After all, the Constitution protects the rights of the minority group of U.S. citizens not the majority per se.
This issue is a sleeper. Rhode island is heavily Catholic. Schools have been shuttered on Good Friday and Christmas. Why should one religion’s sacred days be sacrosanct while those of other believers have not? The trade-off has been to allow people without penalty to take the day off (and, if Catholic educators took the day off along with students there would be very empty buildings so an utilitarian basis exists). Yet, it is troubling that minority religions get short shrift. The modest request not to have the start of school day on a key holy day should be respected. Hopefully, the school committee will come to its senses.
Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.