School and Rosh Hashanah
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Jewish teachers who teach at public schools fear asking for time off for Rosh Hashanah because it falls immediately after Labor Day.

The convergence of the observance of the Jewish New Year and start of the new school year is leaving some Jewish students and educators who learn or work in public schools feeling torn about whether to observe the holiday or attend class.

After the chaotic nature of last year’s school year due to the pandemic, families with school-age children and educators desire a beginning of the school year that is as close to normal as possible. And that means consistent attendance during the first days and weeks of school.

There are only a handful of districts in the Metro Detroit area that close for the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They include Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Walled Lake and Berkley. 

Some school districts pushed the first day of school to Aug. 30, ahead of the traditional day after Labor Day start, while others delayed their first days to the second day of Rosh Hashanah to accommodate Jewish students and faculty. 

No school districts close on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which is not observed by the large number of Reform students attending public schools.

Families with children attending class in districts with very small Jewish populations have grappled with the decision to either attend synagogue with their children and have them miss the first day of school or curtail their religious observances altogether. 

Jewish teachers, who are contractually obligated to work or feel frowned upon by administrators for asking for time off to observe the High Holidays, face a decision that some say would threaten their employment status.

Working with Schools

Robin Weiner Rinke of Madison Heights has raised her two children, Jakob, 19, and Rebekah, 13, in the Lamphere School District. She said there is a small but growing Jewish population there.

Rinke said when her son was in the sixth grade, they skipped middle school open house night because it fell on Rosh Hashanah. She said she received a “rude” email from the principal who reminded her to put her priorities in place. 

Still, she has always kept her children out of school during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“It was a horrible feeling,” said Rinke, recalling the principal’s comments.

“Things have improved since then, and now we even have a Jewish mayor in Madison Heights. Jewish families in school districts with small Jewish populations need to communicate their needs in advance. There would never be school on Christmas or Easter. I’d like my children to feel their holy days are just as important. Jewish families need to stand their ground.”

Melissa Ser
Melissa Ser

Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills who is also a parent of three school-age children in Farmington Public Schools, said the school district has been sensitive to the needs of religious minorities.

Ser said she contacted district administrators before they had a calendar for the 2021-2022 school year explaining the timing of Jewish holidays in conjunction with the beginning of school. The first day of class was Aug. 30 and school is open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ser said the district moved curriculum night in the school where her children attend so it would not conflict with Erev Yom Kippur.

“When I notified the school district of the timing of the holidays, they were very appreciative,” Ser said. “And that’s the kind of relationship parents who are in a religious minority need to have with the schools.”

As a parent, Ser said Farmington Public Schools is the kind of school district where a principal has ordered kosher pizza so her children could participate in class pizza parties or where friends keep their Muslim friends company in the school office during lunch hour when they are fasting during Ramadan.

From a professional standpoint, Ser said she and the rest of the staff at Adat Shalom have offered the message that whatever decision families make about the High Holidays — whether to take off for the entire time, part of the time or not at all — is the right decision for their families. But the staff is there to offer support if families feel like their observances of the holidays conflict with the pressures of public-school calendars.

“Parents should not feel obligated to send their children to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because they fear they are going to miss out or be penalized on those first days of school,” Ser said. 

“If families say the school is making them feel this way, let us know and we are here to help you. I say the same thing of our students who go off to college: We will give you the language to use to navigate the situation and recommend who you should talk to (at the university level). And if that does not work, we will make a phone call. Because Adat Shalom college-age students will always be our kids, even when they are away.”

Cindy Weintraub, a lifelong resident of Birmingham who now has school-age children in the district, said she hopes Jews begin to collectively speak up about the importance of closing schools for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“We are at a time where all holidays should be recognized as a major holiday that is observed by a lot of people,” said Weintraub. “I have approached this with them for years, first when I was a student and now with my own children.”

Jewish Teachers

Jewish teachers who teach at public schools fear asking for time off for Rosh Hashanah because it falls immediately after Labor Day. Many are hesitant to approach this subject with already-strained administrators who continue to deal with the pandemic. Contractually, teachers are strongly discouraged from asking for a day off after a paid holiday. No teachers wanted to officially comment on the record about this to the JN, even under the condition of anonymity.

Maria Lograsso-Gaitens
Maria Lograsso-Gaitens

Maria Lograsso-Gaitens is a K-8 educator with Detroit Public Schools and an organizer with the teachers’ labor union, MI CORE. She said unless a school district is completely closed, teachers have to ask for religious holidays as a personal day and it may go as unpaid time.

Lograsso-Gaitens said most negotiated contracts prohibit personal days to be taken after an extended break or holiday weekend. Taking a personal day for religious reasons cannot be a reason for penalizing a teacher during their evaluation as per union negotiations, she added.

“Many districts are providing a waiver to this regarding religious holidays when that occurs, and I am seeing that for this school year, thanks to local unions’ push to district leadership,” said Lograsso-Gaitens. 

Embekka Roberson
Embekka Roberson

Birmingham Public Schools Superintendent Embekka Roberson said although schools in the district are open for the High Holidays, it is board policy to allow students and staff to take time off for religious observance.

Teachers are not allowed to assign homework or major projects due after these holidays nor are they allowed to present significant new material or hold quizzes or tests.

Roberson said the district intends to teach the whole child beyond academics. In the district’s efforts to encourage inclusivity and understanding, a weekly newsletter that goes out to faculty lists upcoming religious holidays as well as their meaning and significance.

“We don’t ever want students to feel burdened by the fact that they are celebrating and observing their religion,” Roberson said. 

“It should not have to be a choice of giving oneself fully to the school calendar or celebrating one’s religious holidays. 

“We should be able to make accommodations if we are really talking about celebrating the whole child. To some students, their religious observances are part of who they are.” 

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com