Some Brunswick School Board members contest adding Jewish holidays to calendar

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board on Wednesday debated adding notices of Jewish holidays to the school calendar.

The discussion included one board member’s suggestion that doing so would improperly defer to an “outside” group.

The conversation was sparked by a letter sent to school administrators and forwarded to School Board members by Douglas Street resident Natasha Goldman.

Goldman wrote the letter on behalf of the Brunswick Area Havurah, a community group of Jewish families, and it is signed by 16 individuals and families. In it, they request that the board consider adding “significant Jewish holidays” to the 2016-2017 calendar.

In the past year, according to Goldman, a school facilities meeting and school picture day were scheduled on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. There were also field trips on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

“On these holy days,” Goldman said at Wednesday’s meeting, “many Jewish families spend the day in synagogue. … So the message being given to Jewish families is: you are not invited to these (events).”

“We know that this is not an issue of insensitivity on the part of the school faculty, administration and staff,” the letter states. “This is an issue of non-Jewish people simply not knowing there is an important scheduling conflict because that conflict does not appear on the calendar.”

Brunswick Area Havurah wants the School Department to add Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to the calendar so teachers, administrators and other staff can be aware of the holidays when scheduling tests, events or meetings.

The School Department calendar recognizes state and federal holidays, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In an email to board members Wednesday morning, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said he supports the proposal.

“Despite me asking staff to be cognizant of the holidays as they plan events ,we have still forgotten to do so,” he wrote. “The Jewish population in Brunswick has grown and continues to grow and I believe we must be respectful of their culture as well as any other culture. Adding their holidays to the calendar will remind us of what I consider a fair and reasonable request.”

The proposal was met by strong support from some board members, and reluctance from others.

Board member Brenda Clough said she worries about the precedent set by posting dates for “outside groups” on the school calendar.

Board member Sarah Singer pushed back. “I don’t see it as an outside group,” she said. She said she supported being “sensitive … of communities of faith” in public education.

“(For me), it all comes back … to separation of church and state,” said board member Janet Connors. “We’re not teaching religion in school.”

“Muslims … and some of the other not-mainstream religions have holy days,” Connors said. If the School Department began cancelling school on all those days, she argued, “you wouldn’t have school, after some time.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Joy Prescott pointed out that the request made in the letter was to note Jewish holidays, not to cancel school.

Board members did not vote on the question Wednesday; they will finalize the 2016-17 calendar at their Feb. 10 meeting.

Nearby school districts – School Administrative District 75, SAD 51, Regional School Unit 5 and the Falmouth School Department – all note Christmas Day on their calendars, but not any Jewish holidays. The Yarmouth School Department, Portland Public Schools, South Portland School Department and RSU 1 do not list any religious holidays.

On Wednesday night, Goldman said she was “not entirely surprised” by the board’s reaction to her request, and “thankful for the positive responses that I heard.”

But, she added, “it’s upsetting to be described as an ‘outside group.'”

Goldman estimated, from conversations among the Havurah, that 10 percent of people in town are Jewish. The website Jewish Virtual Library estimates that 1 percent of Maine’s population is Jewish.

Goldman said she began working on the letter to the School Department in September, and got feedback from her rabbi in South Portland, as well as about 60 other Jewish families, before sending it to school administrators.

“(We are) only asking that the holiday is noted on the school district calendar,” she said.

“We are an integral part of life in this town,” she added. “Minorities are not outsider groups, they are minorities.”

Clough declined to elaborate on or discuss her reference to “outside groups” after the meeting.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick School Department’s central office at 46 Federal St.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.