Observing the High Holidays in a Secular World

My son’s homecoming dance is at 8 p.m. on Sept. 30 – Yom Kippur. Conversations with our school principal, led by parent and Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, revealed that the administration gave the dance a green light because sundown marks the end of the holiday. The response was polite yet firm and went as follows, “The Homecoming dance is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on September 30. I believe that this time is past sundown for that date. We take all holidays seriously and do not want to create conflicts with our students.” Correspondence between the parents and the principal continued. The date of the dance wasn’t moved, but the school district has promised to include us in future conversations regarding school district event-scheduling.

This article is not an editorial to debate whether the school district was right or wrong; rather it’s an article to raise questions and avoid complacency on the Jewish community’s role in secular events.

I grew up in Minot, N.D., where being Jewish was like being a unicorn. There were only a handful of observant Jews in town, a little over a minyan. I was the only Jew at my high school. I remember my parents meeting with my high school principal to discuss why my absence for the high holidays should be excused. I attended that meeting, and it was obvious that the principal was not familiar with our traditions. However, he was respectful of my parent’s request and agreed that my holiday absences wouldn’t count against my attendance record.

When I was in college, I had a different experience. Registration day was the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I went to sign up for class a few days early and was told by the registrar that I couldn’t enroll. When I explained to her why I couldn’t be there, the woman looked at me confused and pointed to a woman working at one of the desks and said, she’s Jewish and she’s working that day. My 20-year old self was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. I think I finally stuttered out a few words about observance and that the colleague may have difference practices. The conversation quickly became unbearably awkward. She apologized, took my information and figured out how to work with me to get registered.

Let’s face it. Sometimes religion can be a bit like choose your own adventure. While some observe the laws and traditions closely, others make modifications. Growing up, we never had pork in our home, but I did enjoy going to restaurants for an occasional club sandwich or pepperoni pizza. We didn’t fly or travel on Shabbat, but I would drive to the mall or to the movies with friends. I did – and do – observe both days of Rosh Hashanah and keep my kids home from school. However, many of our friends and family send their kids to class on the second day. These are all choices, neither right nor wrong, simply choices.

For the secular community, I can only imagine how confusing it must be to sift through the varying levels of observance. That is why it’s critical to keep the dialogue going with our secular partners. As individuals, it’s our responsibility to educate and explain the nuances. In the case with my son’s school, the principal thought that sundown marked the end of the holiday and therefore holding the dance was OK. Great that the familiarity was there, however, it only proves that the conversation needs to continue. Only ongoing relationship building and dialogue will bring that important kind of understanding. What have you witnessed? How have you dealt with these kinds of experiences?