There’s nothing like walking into your high school for the first time as a student. Unfortunately for Jewish students in the Eden Prairie School District, the school district is asking students to choose between their faith and their education.
Eden Prairie is the only metro area school district that will be starting school on Tuesday, Sept. 7 – which, while that is the traditional Tuesday-after-Labor-Day start date, is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Other schools have pushed the start day back to Wednesday, Sept. 8, or opted to start before Labor Day
One student, Olivia Lubin, has started an online petition to help draw attention to this situation.
“Eden Prairie’s whole thing is being equal and inspiring each student,” said Olivia, an eighth-grader at Eden Prairie Central Middle School. “But how are you doing that if you’re not giving everyone the same opportunities to learn?”
Olivia’s petition has garnered nearly 700 signatures in the first week.
“I felt that the first day of high school is really important,” she said. “It’s never going to happen again and it’s a big moment. I shouldn’t have to choose between my faith and going to school.”
There is some mixed messaging from the some of the seven-person school board. Board Chair Adam Seidel, in an email to one Eden Prairie parent, said that the calendar “was finalized and published in May and June of 2019,” although it was later amended that to say that it was approved in February of 2020.
“Changing the calendar at this late date would impact students and staff who have already planned around the existing calendar and would impact our employees in a way that would require reopening of their collective bargaining agreements,” he wrote.
However, the copy of the 2021-22 calendar that is available on the district’s website says that it is “preliminary and subject to change.” Brett Johnson, the district’s senior director of communications, said that there is flexibility.
“It’s a preliminary calendar,” Johnson said. “The superintendent is aware of the observance of Rosh Hashanah and assigned a team to work on a possible solution.”
Johnson said that the team is made up of district administration and staff.
Kim Ross, who’s a director on the Eden Prairie School Board, said that the final calendar for the 2021-22 school year is scheduled to go to the school board on Jan. 25.
“[The board] approved the skeleton calendar on a consent agenda, so I don’t know if they even discussed or realized the issue of the first day and Rosh Hashanah,” said Ross, who was elected to the board this past November and wasn’t involved in the previous approval.”
Johnson said that the board materials for the Jan. 25 will be available online earlier that day; the final calendar will be voted on during the Feb. 22 board meeting.
“I get how complicated scheduling can be where we have to have kids in school for [a certain] number of days,” she said. “But this seems straightforward; it’s just shifting one day, and as I understand, it’s rare for Rosh Hashanah to be this early.”
In the past decade, only once was it as early as it would be in 2021. In 2013, Rosh Hashanah started at sundown on Thursday, Sept. 5. However, with Labor Day falling early that year, it impacted the fourth day of school for many students. The next time Rosh Hashanah will be as early as this year will be 2029, when it starts on Sunday, Sept. 9.
Rabbi Jill Crimmings, who is the co-chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, said the group is sending a letter to metro area school districts that are meant to be an educational piece to compliment the advocacy work that the Jewish Community Relations Council is doing.
“We’re trying to provide the educational background so it doesn’t fall on the parents to individually explain how the [Jewish] calendar works,” she said.
The letter is careful to walk the line in the different observances of the Jewish community, where Reform families are more likely to observe one day of the holiday, with Conservative families celebrating two.
“We’re a diverse group of rabbis,” she said. “We had to frame in that different communities observe in different ways. And some districts are starting before Labor Day and kids will have to miss school, but it won’t be the first day. It’ll be like any other year.”
The JCRC has been working with Jewish families in Eden Prairie to help advocate for the change. JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs said that when a major event, such as the first day of school, is scheduled to conflict with one of the few Jewish holy days, it does not send a message of inclusivity.
“Significant scheduling conflict puts Jewish students, parents, and staff in a difficult position. For students who are at an age when peer approval and social acceptance is especially significant, to request special accommodation calls attention to the differences between a student and his or her peers and can serve to isolate the student from others,” he said. “It is also difficult for students to have to miss milestone events, such as the first day of school. It is for this reason that the JCRC works with school districts to try to avoid these scheduling conflicts. We are here to assist Jewish parents, faculty, and students on these critically important matters.”
In Seidel’s e-mail to parents, he said the district’s calendar committee has set a policy of following the Federal Holiday calendar.
“In the past, the committee had attempted to honor individual faiths’ respective holidays, but the differences in the importance of different holidays in different faiths, as well as Eden Prairie’s religiously diverse community, made this effort unmanageable, leading to the current strategy,” he wrote.
Miriam Lubin, Olivia’s mother, said that the only reason that excuse was made is that there isn’t representation on the board.
“For our Somali population in Eden Prairie, Eid isn’t observed,” she said. “This sends the message that some holidays are more important than others. The people in charge are saying indirectly that some holidays aren’t as important. It puts the kids in an awkward position because they discuss their faith with pride.”
Ross said that basing the school calendar on the Federal calendar means leaning on the faiths of the dominant culture.
“If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s to not do anything to marginalize a minority’s beliefs and cultures that have been underrepresented in the past,” she said. “I hope that the situation will bring heightened awareness so that in the future, and we look at the calendar process with consideration for important religious and cultural holidays that aren’t of the dominant culture. Will we be able to accommodate all? No. Should we try? Yes.”