District Adds Jewish High Holiday Observance to Belmont School Calendar

Photo: Dr. David Alper speaking before the Belmont School Committee. 

The Belmont School Committee approved a pilot program to close school for one day in observance of the Jewish High Holidays beginning in the coming 2015-16 school year.

In addition to the decision made Tuesday night, March 24, Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan once again voiced his support to begin each school year the week before Labor Day, rather than the traditional first Wednesday of September.

“We felt it was very important that we made sure we were respectful to our community,” said Phelan, who discussed the issue with the six school principals and senior staff. The move came after the committee requested on March 10 that Phelan review possibly changing the school calendar’s traditional makeup.

Two weeks ago, School Committee member Elyse Shuster questioned why the Belmont schools calendar traditionally had a half day scheduled for Good Friday and not any other religious holidays as well as the annual hardships Jewish families encounter.

For Jewish parents and students, the current policy of not penalizing students for taking a day to observe one or both of the High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – has never been a satisfactory compromise as children are expected to make up any missed class and homework scheduled on those days, said Shuster.

With the holidays coinciding with the first month of classes, the prospects of falling behind so early in the school year has many observant Belmont families having to make difficult choices.

Shuster also pointed out that many surrounding communities such as Winchester, Arlington, Newton and Milton observe one or both of the high holidays.

“We are an outlier not … closing for either or any of the Jewish holidays,” said Shuster.

Dr. David Alper, who has children in the district for the past dozen years, told the board he has “suffered with this for 12 years.” Every year Alper said the prevailing calendar “adds stress to my children while we try to have them focus on observing our holidays.”

Alper said the need for a day away from the secular and to the religious is also important on a broader plane.

“The fact is that we need to be able to have the opportunity to let children across the community understand that religion is an important part of our lives,” Alper told the committee, saying a discussion of any observance is a way to introduce tolerance to others.

“We need to be able to do these types of [observances],” he said.

Amy Tannenbaum is a life-long Belmontian, who missed school for 12 years to attend services. But expectations of students – especially in High School – is much greater than when she was attending the district. So her children would come home from services and immediately hit the books to complete homework rather than be observant.

“I think there is a stress piece … that these kids feel like ‘the class got taught, and most kids were there and I got to make it up’,” said Tannenbaum.

In the end, the School Committee accepted a 2015-16 school calendar closing the school for one day – Shuster and the board believed that day should be Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and repentance in which Jewish people fast for the entire day and spend that time in prayer. Yom Kippur will be observed on Wednesday, Sept. 23 this year. Good Friday in 2016 will remain a half day.

If Yom Kippur should fall on the weekend, such as in 2017, the day off will revert to Rosh Hashanah.

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