Adding to the Tinderbox

Unfortunately, a story on Wednesday on WCCO TV and the associated written article linked here about Rosh Hashanah and the 2021-2022 school year did not provide the necessary context the general public needs to understand the complexity of the situation school districts are faced with when setting their annual calendars while also trying to be respectful of the observance of religious holidays.

This lack of context has left Jewish Minnesotans worried that WCCO’s coverage may inadvertently add fuel to the tinderbox of our current environment, which sadly often feels rife with mistrust and hate.

To begin with, please understand that the Jewish community of the last 30-50 years (at least) has not asked for the cancellation of school or even a delay in the start date of the academic year to allow Jewish families to observe Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach or other significant Jewish holidays.

Rather, Jewish families have simply asked that schools make reasonable accommodations so we’re able to keep our kids out of school without any adverse effect on their grades (which teachers seem to tolerate to varying degrees by district, school, and teacher). Similarly, we’ve requested that schools not schedule milestone events such as Homecoming on the Jewish High Holidays or prom on one of the first two nights of Pesach, which would make it impossible for many Jewish families to participate.

Keeping this context in mind, it is important to appreciate that the change to the start of school that was approved in Eden Prairie and in MANY districts across the state is only for the 2021-2022 academic year and is NOT a systemic change to the YEARLY calendar (something WCCO unfortunately did not include in its coverage).

This is because for the first time in approximately a decade the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the most widely observed day of the two-day holiday, which like all Jewish holidays is set by a lunar calendar) will land in 2021 on what is traditionally the first day of school across the state of Minnesota as opposed to another school day sometime in the fall (the next time there is any conflict between Rosh Hashanah and the traditional start of the school year for most districts isn’t until 2032).

Without this seldomly needed accommodation, Jewish students would, to use my own daughter as an example, have to miss the first day of her senior year — or others who would have to miss the first day of high school, as is in the case of the daughter of the family who testified at the January Eden Prairie School Board meeting shown in the WCCO footage.

Coming on what we hope will be the heels of a pandemic that has kept students away for the majority of this academic year, this scheduling conflict is particularly burdensome — but to be clear the Jewish community has been advocating for these changes for the 2021-2022 academic year first on a state-wide level and then district-by-district level for multiple years – well before we ever heard the words COVID-19 or Corona Virus.

While I think it’s great that Eden Prairie is putting together a task force, I hope the Jewish families involved, but also media such as WCCO, will be able to share these very real nuances with the broader community. In general, Jewish community members have focused on trying to get districts to proactively review a calendar before scheduling significant or mandatory school events and to show empathy and make accommodations wherever possible.

Finally, as I also mentioned in a social media post on this topic, should members of other minority faith communities find themselves in similar circumstances related to their holidays, I would gladly and absolutely serve as a supporter, advocate, and ally. I am confident most members of the Jewish community would as well. It is only right to ensure that the same sensitivity shown to the Jewish community by many Minnesota school districts for next school year is extended to other faith communities as well.

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from a letter the author wrote to WCCO. We decided to publish this piece in the hopes that should any member of the community in any district be asked about the issue, they will have the full context.