Alliance urges southern Maine schools to be sensitive to Jewish High Holidays

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PORTLAND — The Jewish Community Alliance is formally asking school districts in Cumberland and York counties to limit new classroom lessons and social activities on the Jewish High Holidays.

JCA Executive Director Emily Chaleff said a letter sent to school officials is a proactive move to raise awareness about the conflict Jewish students face when they must choose between staying home to observe the holidays with their families or going to school so they don’t fall behind. 

“It’s really no reflection on the school system,” Chaleff said. “It’s difficult, when you have a minority population, to understand the needs of that population if the population doesn’t express that need.”

In the past, Chaleff said, the JCA would simply submit a calendar to school districts, but decided to increase its awareness efforts this year. “We really want to be a partner with the schools,” she said.

JCA Campaign Coordinator Samantha Johnson said that 96 school principals and superintendents in York and Cumberland counties have, or will have, received letters. The JCA first contacted its members in August seeking cosigners before sending the letters to school districts. 

The letter tells school districts to expect student absences on Yom Kippur, Sept. 28, and asks them to refrain from introducing new material, so these students are not at a disadvantage. “We ask that as principal/superintendent, you make this a policy at your school,” the letter said. 

Sue Ward, assistant to the Portland superintendent of schools, on Tuesday said the city’s School Department hasn’t received the JCA letter. She said Portland schools try to be sensitive to the religious needs of its students, and the district has a guideline, not a policy, asking teachers to consider the timing of new lesson plans so they don’t conflict with any religious holiday.

Falmouth Superintendent Barbara Powers said her district keeps religious holidays in mind when setting up the school calendar, which draws attention to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, which falls this year on a weekend.

“It’s our attempt to be as fair as possible to families whose children will not be in school,” Powers said.

Even though Falmouth is mindful of the Jewish holidays, Powers said she appreciated receiving the JCA letter. 

“It’s worth a regular reminder,” she said. “I plan on sharing this with the principals and teachers when we meet.” 

Although student absences are not expected during the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Friday, Sept. 18, the JCA is asking schools to limit weekend events on Sept. 19 and 20.

The letter says that many Jewish students feel alienated when tests, important lessons or team-building exercises are offered when they are not in school for religious reasons. The JCA said it recognizes the pressures teachers are under to carry out their lesson plans during the year, which is cut short by other holidays and snow days. 

“The fact that we understand the teacher concerns, and still request this holiday acknowledgment, is an indication of just of crucial an issue this is for our communities,” the letter said. 

Patricia Conant, principal of Scarborough High School, said the school made some “minor tweaks” to its athletic schedules after receiving the letter. 

“We’re fortunate that the Athletic Administrators Association is strong and they work well with one another to accommodate these changes,” Conant said. “There is always an issue, because there is no consistency (to the Jewish Holidays) from year to year.” 

Johnson said the JCA also realizes it is a challenge for school districts to keep track of the High Holidays, which are aligned with the Jewish, lunar calendar.  

“They’re kind of a moving a target,” she said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or