Closing public schools on the High Holy Days is permissible – but not mandated – by the State of New Jersey. Still, as they plan their calendars for the coming year, the great majority of area schools contacted by The Jewish Standard said they plan to close for Rosh Hashanah (Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 17 and 18) and Yom Kippur (Wednesday, Sept. 26).
While most districts will close their schools for both days of Rosh Hashanah, some – including Ridgewood, Ramsey, Edgewater, Northern Highlands, Upper Saddle River, Dumont, Wyckoff, Mahwah, and Franklin Lakes – will close only on Sept. 17. Midland Park and Waldwick schools will close only for Yom Kippur.
Little Ferry, whose superintendent explained that the district has few Jews, will not close its schools for the High Holy Days. The same is true of Bogota and Hawthorne. In these cases, Jewish teachers wishing to observe the days must do so as personal days.
At press time, the Tenafly district reported it had not yet made a final decision, while Cliffside Park and Ridgefield Park said they had not yet finalized their school calendars for the upcoming year.
Apparently, decisions on closing educational institutions are not cast in stone.
In Hudson County, Michele Levine, chair of HudsonJewish, said, “It seems that every year in Bayonne is different. A couple of years ago, school was closed for two days for Rosh Hashanah, but then only one day the following year, and I believe last year they were not closed at all.”
Said Robert Scheinberg, rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, “For the last few years, Hoboken public schools have been closed on [one day of] Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, though last year Yom Kippur was on Saturday, so it was not an issue. I assume this practice will continue.”
Institutions of higher learning also are struggling with the school closure issue, as demonstrated by the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s March 22 statement explaining its decision to revise the school’s calendar, cancelling school closures for religious holidays.
Noting that the majority of students have supported the call for changing the calendar – which, said the school, “failed to serve the academic needs of our students” – the statement said, “Religious observance is and must always be a personal choice, not an institutional mandate. Stony Brook is first and foremost an educational institution that has to provide the maximum instruction time in the most efficient, effective, and beneficial manner for all students.”
Pointing to demographic changes – which today includes “an equal number of Muslim and Jewish students, and a much larger population of individuals of other religious affiliations” – the school said it was necessary to address the issue of treating religions differently by, for example, closing classes for the Jewish observances, but not for corresponding Muslim or Hindu ones.
The school decided, therefore, to “identify the major religious holidays for the religions represented on campus, make sure that each faculty member knows that no tests or major assignments can be scheduled on those days, and take steps to ensure that students are not penalized for taking those days off.”
In its statement, the school also pointed out that neither the government of New York State nor New York City closes on these holidays.
“Stony Brook is not the only SUNY campus that has classes on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur; in fact, cancelling classes on those days is the exception, not the norm,” read the statement, pointing out that 22 of 29 four-year SUNY campuses do not cancel classes on the High Holy Days.
In its “List of Religious Holidays Permitting Pupil Absence from School,” the New Jersey Department of Education cites not only major Jewish observances, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also the minor festivals of Purim and Chanukah. The list also includes the holy days of other religions, from Christianity and Islam to Wiccan and Scientology.
Like New Jersey, which leaves decisions on school closure up to its districts, New York empowers its districts to choose the days on which schools will not open. A spokesman for the New York City board of education noted that while next year’s calendar has not yet been set, previous school years have included school closures for both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.