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.

Belmont School’s Calendar Could See Changes, Adding Jewish Holiday, Earlier Start to Year

Photo: The Belmont school calendar could see changes on adding religious holiday and the start of school. 

Every year since she’s had children attending the Belmont schools, School Committee member Elyse Shuster has been in the same situation as so many Jewish parents at the beginning of every school year: should we keep the kids out of school during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

Even under the district’s current policy – the system officially doesn’t recognize religious holidays – that allows students to miss a day or two without penalty (and teachers are advised not to schedule tests on those days), Shuster and others have feared their children will not be fully caught up with their school work during the important first days of the school year as the important holidays occur between September and early October.

“It’s extremely hard to miss those days especially for high schoolers,” Shuster told the Belmontonian.

“The teachers will say that students won’t be penalized for missing class, but they also won’t hold up teaching for those days. Those kids are on their own,” she said.

For some families, the choice is one of education rather than faith.

“The [observances] are important to us, but I’ve known families who have sent their children to school rather than miss two or three days of class,” Shuster said.

Elected to the committee in 2013, Shuster was approached by parents and friends on the subject.

“People would come up to me to ask, ‘When are you going to bring it up?'” said Shuster.

That time came at the Belmont School Committee meeting held Tuesday, March 10 at the Chenery Middle School when Shuster received the handout with the draft 2015-16 school calendar.

On the sheet, in March, was scheduled an early release for Good Friday.

“If the district’s rule is not to observe religious holidays, why are we having a half-a-day on Good Friday?” asked Shuster.

For the next half hour, the school committee and district officials discussed how to put into effect either including those observances and how it could affect future discussions.

“I’m glad you’ve brought that up because this comes up, and we then forget about it,” Lisa Firo

Shuster is not asking to strike a sacred Christian day from the calendar, “that a religious holiday is … only being taken away in a tit-for-tat way,” said Shuster. In fact, she was hoping to draw interest in adding a holiday – most likely a day set aside for Yom Kippur which takes place on Wednesday, Sept. 23 – for an important observation to a sizable minority in the school population.

“If it’s all or nothing, then I think that’s fair. But I want to us to think about the High Holidays of the major religions in this town and have a dialog in this town,” she said.

Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said Belmont should not look how other cities and towns have broached he matters since every community is made up “of folks who have … different experiences and religious backgrounds and be respectful of where our local community feels is important and then try to reflect that.”

Just this week, the Easton School Committee voted to eliminate three religious holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday – from its calendar.

What Shuster is attempting to change is, at times, harder than discussing religion or politics with your relatives; the status quo. For as long as anyone can remember, the school year in Belmont begins after Labor Day and there is a half-a-day of work on Good Friday. When presented to past school committees, calendars were approved after a curtsey look.

“It alway seems like it’s the status quo and even when we bring it up, how does it change? I hope that people … will appreciate that this discussion is happening about religious holidays,” said Shuster, inviting people to the next school meeting to discuss this issue.

With Schuster opening the door to altering the calendar, Phelan said he wants to re-examine the long-standing tradition of a post-Labor Day beginning of the school year.

“If we start going down the path of additional days recognized, we may also simultaneously entertain starting school before Labor Day,” he said, a change that could led to schools opening in August.

Current school policy is that Belmont schools open on the first Wednesday in September. Under the proposed 2015-16 calendar, the school year does begin before Labor Day – tentatively a full day for 1st to 12th grades on Wednesday, Sept. 2 – due to the late date of the holiday, falling on Monday, Sept. 8.

“I think it’s good for the kids, and I just want to make sure that is discussed,” said Phelan.

School Committee Chair Laurie Slap said she was eager to start that conversation “when we have that opportunity.”

Other important dates in the draft calendar are the winter recess beginning on Thursday, Dec. 24 and running through Monday, Jan. 4; February break begins the week of Feb. 15 and a late Spring break week starting April 18.

The earliest the last day of school will occur will be Tuesday, June 14, that is if no snow (or any other weather/emergency) days are declared.

Approving changes to the calendar will need the cooperation of the Belmont Education Association, the bargaining representative of teachers, aides and staff. Language in the teachers’ contract pertaining to the calendar will need to be reviewed by all sides before action can be taken, said Phelan.

With more research needed and with Phelan meeting with other superintendents this week where he will bring up the subject, Slap said the committee will take up the issue at its next meeting on Tuesday, March 24.

Mark it down on your calendar.