ARLINGTON – The Arlington School Committee has voted to shift the first day of school for 2021-2022 to avoid it conflicting with the second day of Rosh Hashanah after concerns from both Jewish and non-Jewish parents that this day was too special for kids to miss school for religious observance after the pandemic.
East Arlington parent Sharona Jacobs said in an email she was “extremely appreciative” the School Committee decided to move the first day of school from Sept. 8 to Sept. 9 to avoid it falling on the second day of the High Holiday.
“I am asking that the calendar be modified so that Jewish families do not have to choose between going back to school after the pandemic … or observing the Jewish holiday,” she told the School Committee’s Policies and Procedures subcommittee during a remote meeting on Zoom on Feb. 9.
Arlington, like most public school districts in Massachusetts, has gone with hybrid models of remote and in-school classes this school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacobs and a group of parents had posted a petition to Change.org that drew more than 1,080 signatures after the school board voted 4-3 on Jan. 28 on a draft calendar showing school starting on Sept. 8, the first Wednesday after Labor Day.
However, at the subcommittee meeting, members had a change of heart, and recommended the first day of school be Thursday, Sept. 9. On Feb. 11, the full committee voted unanimously to start school the day after Rosh Hashanah.
The issue brought to the fore a long-simmering conversation in Arlington about how the school calendar should accommodate all religious holidays.
Parents like Jacobs said they were not asking to carve out two days off for Rosh Hashanah in the future. For them, this was about an existing policy that special events in school should not be scheduled on religious holidays, and what could be a more special than the first day back in school after a worldwide pandemic?
“The Jewish community has gone through a lot lately,” the Change.org petition stated, “and being sensitive to this would mean so much after several years of increasing amounts of anti-Jewish expression both in this community and beyond.”
Jacobs’s daughter, Lilia, attends Ottoson Middle School and is a seventh grader in the Remote Academy. They attend the egalitarian Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville.
Jacobs read a statement from her daughter that said: “This is my religion, and to not go to synagogue on the High Holidays is just not something I can or want to do. This makes me feel left out, unimportant and unwelcome that the people in my community made this decision.”
Arlington school officials questioned how many Jewish families observe the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
“Our experience in the district is that very few do,” said Superintendent Kathleen Bodie during the Jan. 28 meeting, which was broadcast on cable TV.
Arlington Public Schools have observed the first day as a no-school day for several years, according to Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel, in response to a request by the Jewish Journal asking to quantify the drop-off in attendance on the second day compared with the first. Since the first day of Rosh Hashanah has been a no-school day for several years, the district does not have meaningful data with which to gauge the drop-off.
Attendance data shows that between 2016 and 2019, there were at least 13 to 24 student absences for a religious observance for the second day of Rosh Hashanah: 13 in 2016, 24 in 2017, 13 in 2018 and 17 in 2019.
Rosh Hashanah fell on a weekend last year. Spiegel said it’s possible not all absences for a religious observance were captured because parents may not have said why their kids were out. Staff absences for religious observance on the second day of Rosh Hashanah shows seven in 2017, and four each in 2018 and 2019.
In an informal survey about how some Greater Boston school districts deal with the start of school and Rosh Hashanah, it was found some take both days off, others just one, some none.
Newton does not hold school on Rosh Hashanah, according to Superintendent David Fleishman.
Liz Polay-Wettengel, the chief of public relations for Salem Public Schools said the district typically does not close for Rosh Hashanah. Marblehead observes both days of Rosh Hashanah, said Superintendent John Buckey.
Swampscott takes off both days of Rosh Hashanah, according to Maureen Caron, the executive assistant to the Swampscott Superintendent/School Committee.
“We are aware of Rosh Hashanah falling on what is traditionally the first day of school in Danvers,” Superintendent Lisa Dana said in an email. “Over the past couple of years, we have not closed for Rosh Hashanah but the policy subcommittee will be discussing it in March.”
Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala said the calendar has not been approved but he anticipated the first day of school to fall on August 30 with the first day of Rosh Hashanah an off day, with the second counted as an excused absence.
Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz of Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville said missing that first day of school “for some kids, that means starting the year in a way that is a little bit off, and I think this year it’s going to hit people really hard.”
Rabbi Avi Bukiet of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life Arlington-Belmont said the Jewish community in Arlington is growing “exponentially,” and the center has 100 member households, 65 of which have children in Arlington schools.
“Just to make it clear, the second day of Rosh Hashanah is, from a traditional standpoint, as important as the first day of Rosh Hashanah,” Bukiet said.
The Anti-Defamation League reported five incidents of anti- Semitism in Arlington during 2019, including graffiti at one of the schools and two arson fires set outside the Chabad center, where the rabbi’s family lives.
“This upcoming school year is going to be different. [The first day of school] is a day no child should miss if they can help it,” Bukiet said.
Rabbi Carolyn “Cari” Bricklin-Small of Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, who lives in Arlington and is a parent of a second grader and an incoming kindergartner, said her congregation serves 123 Arlington families, 54 that have children in the temple’s religious education program that are also of school age. The Reform congregation holds two days of services for Rosh Hashanah.
“So that means we have heard from a Chabad, an egalitarian, and now a Reform congregation that they acknowledge Rosh Hashanah to be two days long,” she said.
As a parent, Bricklin-Small said if school were held on Sept. 8, she would have to decide whether to be present for her daughter’s first day of kindergarten.
“That is not a decision we should be asking any religious member of our community to have to make,” Bricklin-Small said.