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In schools, a growing push to recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays

By Debbie Truong Washington Post

WASHINGTON – When her daughters were children, Khadija Athman packed the major Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, with celebration.

They opened gifts and covered their hands in henna. After prayer, they had breakfast at a pancake house before spending the day at the movies and Chuck E. Cheese’s.

“Eid is like our Christmas,” Athman said, her face brightening as she recalled the family’s traditions. “I grew up … being so excited about Eid and I wanted to raise my kids with that same excitement.”

But for her daughters, the warm memories faded each time perfect attendance certificates were awarded to schoolmates in suburban Northern Virginia. The honor eluded Athman’s daughters, Nusaybah and Sumayyah, who were resentful because they missed school each year for the Muslim holidays, their mother said.

Muslim and Jewish students in suburban Fairfax and Prince William counties have long had to decide whether to observe a religious holiday or attend school, a struggle diverse communities nationwide have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds.

Sometimes students feel compelled to choose between faith and school. “They don’t want to observe the holiday with their family because they don’t want to miss school,” said Meryl Paskow, a volunteer with the interfaith group Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.

Earlier this year, the interfaith group persuaded school leaders in suburban Northern Virginia to be more forgiving of students who miss tests because of a religious holiday. Superintendents in Fairfax and Prince William counties agreed to keep tests and major school events from falling the day before or after major Muslim and Jewish holidays, but school remains in session on those holidays.

The change brings the two Northern Virginia school districts in closer alignment with other diverse school systems in the country, including several in Maryland, New York and New Jersey.

In Prince William, school absences for religious holidays are no longer counted against a student’s attendance record. That option would have provided relief years ago for Athman.

“I want them to be proud of their heritage, to be proud of their religion,” she said. “It feels more like a competition when it shouldn’t be a competition. You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school.”

The interfaith group – which addresses issues including affordable housing, health care and immigrant rights – adopted school religious holidays as a cause more than a year ago.

“These are great students,” said Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. “They don’t want to miss a test.”

The interfaith group made a request of superintendents in Fairfax and Prince William: no tests, major assignments or school events on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first night of Passover, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Fairfax teachers were directed not to schedule tests on certain religious holidays, and the district sends quarterly reminders to principals, district spokesman John Torre said in an email.

Some school districts elsewhere in the country have made religious accommodations for decades by granting the holiday off or excusing absences. In New York, schoolchildren have been given Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off since the 1960s, school districtspokesman Michael Aciman said in an email. Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were added in the 2015-2016 school year.

“These school holidays help ensure that a significant number of NYC families and staff do not have to choose between observing a religious holiday and attending school,” Aciman wrote in an email.

In Paterson, New Jersey, schools close for only one holiday for each major religion, schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo said in an email. For example, students have class off for only one of the Eid holidays, a decision the district makes in consultation with faith leaders.

Closing for all religious holidays would prevent the racially diverse district of about 28,000 students from reaching the number of school days mandated by the state, she said.

Rabbi Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said school systems in communities with large Jewish populations generally show a greater sensitivity to the holidays.

Fairfax’s Jewish population has grown substantiallyin the last two decades, Halber said. If the school system examined the number of Muslim and Jewish students, “they might be surprised.”

Leaders with the interfaith group haven’t persuaded everyone. Students at Holzman’s congregation in Reston, Virginia, reported academic conflicts on Rosh Hashanah this school year, as they had previously, he said.

“I thoroughly believe that our leaders at the county level are committed to solving these problems,” he said. “I also thoroughly believe that the message is not getting to the classroom level.”

Eli Sporn, 16, notches nearly straight As in Advanced Placement and honors classes at suburban McLean (Virginia) High School, where he plays soccer and basketball, and participates in theater. He is a teacher’s assistant at Temple Rodef Shalom and belongs to its youth group.

Each year, he misses school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His teachers are understanding, but the specter of schoolwork still looms.

“It kind of hangs over your head the entire time. It’s like, ‘Oh, no. I’m missing something,’ ” the sophomore said recently from his dining room table, his advanced pre-calculus homework nearby.

“We think it’s obligatory,” his mother, Melissa Sporn, said. “It’s part of being Jewish.”

Similarly, Hanan Seid would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers at Washington-Lee High School in suburban Arlington, Virginia, each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid.

“You’re asking a teacher not to give you a test. You’re not sick,” said Seid, who now works at a suburban mosque. “For kids sometimes, (it feels) like they’re asking for too much.”

Seid said she attended school once on Eid al-Adha, known as the festival of sacrifice, because she had a test. Dressed in full makeup and an abaya, a loose-fitting cloak, she felt out of place.

“It was the oddest feeling, because it doesn’t feel like it’s your holiday,” Seid said.

School districts should go further and give students the day off on religious holidays, she said. During Christmastime, “you can feel the spirit in this country,” she said. Not so for Muslim holidays.

For her, having the day off would symbolize a broader acceptance of Islam.

It would convey the message, Seid said, that “they do like us here. They do understand. They do accept us, and they’re willing to learn.”


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