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 wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

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

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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.
  • Chew H Bird

    Any person of any faith can easily access dates of importance regarding religious holidays for free using online resources. Whether a particular school includes or excludes certain holidays should be a non issue. If a school elects to include Jewish holidays, it should also include holidays from ALL religious groups. In my opinion, a better solution is to have anyone scheduling an event perform their due diligence prior to establishing the date of the activity.

    • Natasha Goldman

      Thanks for the great comment, Chew Bird. A cog in the wheel is that Jewish holidays are on the lunar calendar, so that they change every year. It’s impossible to expect anyone scheduling an event to constantly have to google and check for the dates of upcoming Jewish holidays and other significant holidays of other religions that are on the lunar calendar (it’s hard for Jewish families to keep up with the Jewish lunar calendar, so we can’t really expect non-Jews to keep up with our holidays!). We all know Christmas is on Dec. 25th. Yom Kippur could be in Sept. or Oct. So if it’s on the calendar, it saves a whole lot of googling for a whole lot people. Meanwhile, I’m glad to see that the Board Chair reflects your opinion and is now advocating for a multicultural calendar.

      • Chew H Bird

        Thank you for your kind comments. I have Jewish family members and am always looking up dates… Cultural awareness is very important (and I often need to remind myself prior to planning any sort of event). The conservative side of my brain (however) seems to think that date verification is reasonable job requirement of anybody tasked with the scheduling and publication of event dates.

  • Roberta Schwartz

    Being described as a member of an “outside group” sends chills up my spine. There is definitely a significant Jewish presence in Brunswick. We are not asking to close the schools, but merely be listed on the school calendar. And to have some sensitivity in regard to scheduling events on the two high holy days. What can we do to help?

  • I am astonished at the arrogance and ignorance of School Board members Connors and Clough and their jaw-dropping resistance to a simple request for a calendar revision from the Jewish community, a community that has been in the area longer than Connors or Clough have been alive. Connors’ nightmare world where we’d close the school doors because of Muslims “and some of the other not-mainstream religions” competing with her–and those she represents–religious holidays is preposterous.

  • KikiEm

    It appears that dissenters are under the impression that schools would be closed on these Jewish Holy Days? Before jumping down the throats of the dissenters, find out if they were clear on what Natasha Goldman was requesting. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New year’s Day are “Federal Holidays” and within the season’s annual ‘no school’ vacation. BTW….does Natasha Goldman’s request involve only the Brunswick School District calendar? If she wants Jewish Holy Days noted on the school calendar….that’s a simple and reasonable request. If she is requesting that Brunswick schools be closed on those days…..that’s a school board discussion for another day?
    Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah are always listed on my calendar/s (and my new year calendars are always N.E. Patriots calendars)

    • KikiEm

      Oh, I just re-read and understand that Goldman is not asking for school closures on the Jewish High Holy Days. I’m not clear on what is meant by….”so teachers, administrators and other staff can be aware of the holidays when scheduling tests, events or meetings.” What does that mean as it pertains to noting Jewish Holy Days on the school calendar? Does it mean that Jewish children won’t be attending school on those days or is she hoping that teachers will set aside time on those Holy Days to provide a tutorial to their students why Roshana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover are of great importance in the Hebrew Religion?

      • truther

        The former, I’m assuming. In other words, asking that a teacher not schedule, say, a field trip on a day when the Jewish students can’t go.

        • KikiEm

          Thanks for the clarification. Now…another question. Can they not attend a field trip because they are absent from school on these High Holy Days or are they in school and obligated to limit or modify their activities in order to honor the importance of that Jewish Holy Day?

          • truther

            Again generally the former.

            Think of it this way — imagine the school hires a recent immigrant who’s a skilled teacher but has no knowledge of American holidays or culture because he’s from Somalia or Burma or somewhere. So he schedules an event, for example, on Thanksgiving because to him it’s just another Thursday in November. Obviously the school would explain to him how that wouldn’t work. Same thing here.

          • KikiEm

            OK, I can now assume that Jewish students are absent from school on these Jewish Holy Days. In this case, it is reasonable that these Jewish Holy Days be listed on the school calendars. It would not be the fault of faculty, administration or staff to schedule events, tests or meetings that have been, up to this point, in conflict with students of the Jewish faith being absent from school on those days. Now that the issue has been revealed in Natasha Goldman’s letter…….by all means, list these Holy Days on the school calendar. It’s an important and logical request.

          • Natasha Goldman

            Great explanation!

          • Natasha Goldman

            On the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, we are obligated to be in synagogue, as we are on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the holiday is actually two days, but most folks around here celebrate only one day). On Yom Kippur, the same: Eve of and Day of we are in synagogue. On the first two night of Passover, we celebrate at home or with our Jewish community. But it’s a big meal that involves lots of prep! So Jewish adults sometimes take off work to prepare, but children generally go to school — unless they are traveling to celebrate with family out of state. Children and parents would not be able to participate in evening school events for the first two night of Passover.

          • KikiEm

            Thank you. I appreciate the information.

  • farmertom2

    Is Connors actually a racist or merely an imbecile? Was there a request to cancel school on those days? Or merely note them on the calendar? So that **non class** events might be scheduled at a different time, school photos and field trips. We already skip school on Christmas because it’s Christmas. (Oh no, that’s just a coincidence.) And is Good Friday ON THE SCHOOL CALENDAR? Why by golly, so it is!

  • EABeem

    I find it hard to believe that the Jewish holidays weren’t on the school calendar already. I find it even harder to believe that any school board member would have a problem with it. And I find it impossible to believe that any board member would regard Jews as an “outsider” group.

    • Jimmy_John67

      100% agree with you.

  • Jimmy_John67

    It’s easy to see why the quality of Brunswick schools has been in decline in recent years while the cost per student skyrockets with such an ignorant School Board as this.