School Committee considers adding Muslim holidays to calendar

The School Committee was asked Tuesday to put Muslim holidays on the academic calendar alongside those of Christians and Jews, but committee members held back from voting immediately. The issue was put off until a Jan. 5 meeting, when a broader policy — and the effects of new days off on parents, staff and the city — could be addressed.

Committee members seemed sympathetic to the request for recognition, but expressed caution the move would be, in the words of Joe Grassi, “much bigger than just this holiday. We need to do it in the context of a policy.”

This vexed Siham Elazri, the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School junior who was the sole student to wait out the committee’s decision.

“We have Christmas off and Yom Kippur off, but no Muslim holidays off, and these holidays were made without a policy. So I don’t see why there suddenly has to be a policy in place,” Elazri said. “It wasn’t a conflict before.”

Her comments cut to the heart of the arguments delivered during public comment in favor of recognition, which were led by another high school junior, Hichem Hadjeres.

Although efforts surrounding the rights of Muslim students began in earnest three years ago, Hadjeres arrived from a private school during a time of low activity. When he found time and a place to pray during the school day and for Friday congregational prayers, he was — at first — alone. He has since been joined by between six and nine other students, he said, but has had to work to ensure the prayers can take place; one of the school’s two lunch periods come during a time needed for prayer, and passes had to be arranged to ensure students were able to use it.

Hadjeres’ main point, though, was being able to celebrate holidays as his Jewish and Christian friends do — with a day off from school. “Muslim students have to choose between an important holiday to their faiths and families and being absent from school,” he said during public comment, referring to key holidays in Islam, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. “We believe that having this holiday would improve the feeling of equity among all faiths and religions, since the city recognizes Jewish and Christian holidays.”

Making room in the academic calendar for Muslim holidays would follow the model for Jewish holidays, said committee member Marc McGovern, in that there are two that would ideally deserve time off. In Islam, it’s the Eids, and in Judaism it’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; both religions follow different calendars, resulting in the holidays appearing inconsistently from year to year on the Julian calendar. For the Jewish holidays, the rule is that students get the day off for whichever holiday falls within the school year; if both do, Rosh Hashana takes precedence. For Muslim students, Eid Al-Fitr would take precedence.

Also speaking were Marla Erlien, of the city’s Human Rights Commission, who noted the importance of recognition and respect for Islam in light of how it was invoked during the presidential campaign of Barack Obama — to inspire doubt and fear; and a non-Muslim Rindge & Latin graduate, Samuel Gebru.

“There are some who suggest there are more Muslims than Jews or Christians in this city,” Gebru said, imploring the committee to “allow them to share their religion, share their culture, with the city.”

Census information — the U.S. Census doesn’t ask religion — gives few signs Muslims are that prevalent in the city, but McGovern and Superintendent Jeff Young believed they make up a significant portion of the school population.

Young said he would do his best with a calendar recommendation for Jan. 5. The city’s academic calendar, which he called of “bedrock” importance, has already been delayed.

And forming a policy would also mean looking at what holidays might be due to come off the academic calendar. Mayor and committee member Denise Simmons named none, while committee member Patty Nolan suggested Columbus Day might be worth consideration.

The final concern, discussed briefly by McGovern and Young after the meeting, had to do with what other religions might come forward with requests once the holidays of Islam were recognized.

The complications of the policy, contrasted with the need to produce an academic calendar quickly, could result in recognizing the Muslim holidays in two years instead of next year, they said.

“I believe there needs to be a policy, but I don’t want this large religious group not to be recognized,” McGovern said.

Elazri, though, expressed almost an opposite view. She didn’t practice Islam when she was younger because “I didn’t feel as comfortable. Now that I’m older, I feel more comfortable with myself and to able to say I’m a Muslim,” she said, suggesting academic recognition would create that same comfort for others.

The committee also:

Accepted a list of seven priorities for the superintendent to follow in crafting a budget. Young asked for committee involvement; under previous superintendents, the committee approved or rejected a final budget.

Was given an extensive look at middle school data and set a timeline for reworking the best way to educate middle schoolers in the city. A chance for residents to participate in an online survey ends Friday; there will be faculty forums in January; a recommendation to the School Committee in February; and deliberation and debate by the committee in March so it can accept, reject or modify the curriculum.

Said goodbyes. For Simmons, Grassi and Luc Schuster, this was the last meeting as committee members. Grassi led off the goodbyes with heartfelt thanks to Simmons for her leadership, including in her stand against the former superintendent, and to Schuster for his “clear, thoughtful and thought-provoking comments” and direction on technological issues. Amid a round robin of gracious and warm comments, Grassi and Schuster’s exchanges were most intriguing, looking back at their divergent positions on saluting the American flag — or, in the case of Schuster, declining to salute the flag for moral reasons.

Not standing to salute the flag “exhibits a lot of courage, and I want to thank you for that — for reminding us how important free speech is, reminding us that you can sit and make it stand for something,” Grassi said to Schuster.

“You’re the member I probably disagreed with the most on the issues,” Schuster replied. “But not ever have I felt it was personal, and that’s very rare in a person and important in a public figure.”

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7 Responses to School Committee considers adding Muslim holidays to calendar

  1. Pingback: School Committee considers adding Muslim holidays to calendar … School’s Rate

  2. Owen

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Perhaps the Cambridge School District would do best to drop ALL religious holidays of whatever faith from its calendar and grant each student, instead, up to five days for religious observances per year. I can’t think of any other solution that would be truly fair to all faiths in a diverse community. Certainly trying to decide which holy days, of which faiths, to add will only complicate the situation.

  3. marcmcgovern

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Owen,

    One of the issues with having “rolling” holidays (religious or otherwise) is that school will be open on those days for some students and not others. Our current policy says that if a student misses school due to a religious observance then the absence is not counted against them. The problem is, they missed a day of teaching. One of the issues raised by the Muslim community is that when we close for a Christian or Jewish holiday, those students don’t fall a day behind their peers, as Muslim students do when they stay home but school remains open. Also, our Christian and Jewish parents don’t have to choose between observing their faith vs their child missing school because school is closed. Our Muslim parents don’t have that ability. The question of whether or not we should observe ANY religious holidays is certainly one worth investigating, but if we are going to award a day off to our Christian and Jewish families then I think we should to our Muslim families as well.

  4. Owen

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Dear Mark,

    You’re absolutely right that the current arrangement works okay for Christian and Jewish families but not so conveniently for Muslim families. There are also, of course, a significant number of non-believing families in the city without a strong attachment to any particular faith. For this group, for whom the separation of church and state is a very attractive idea, the notion of an agency of the government trying to devise a policy that gives some religious groups, but not others, official school holidays, is simply awkward and unseemly. That is the foundation of my proposal. I don’t think the School Committee should set about determining how many practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, et al, are in the district and devising a holiday policy that meets the needs of groups deemed sufficiently large to accommodate. My proposal does mean that different children will miss school on different days (just as they do when they are ill). But I think that is a lesser inconvenience than the massive inconvenience of a government trying to fairly dole out official days off to a variety of faiths in a multicultural city, country, and world. Your time needs to be spent, to the greatest extent possible, on the achievement gap and related issues–areas in which, finally, Cambridge appears to be making progress. By the way, I know my proposal is a little too rarified! I offer it mostly in the spirit of encouraging some discussion.

  5. marcmcgovern

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Owen,

    Thank you so much for your comments. Personally, I agree. Although raised Catholic, I don’t consider myself religious and I don’t practice any religion. I am a believer in the separation of church and state. My issue is that we, and by that I mean past school committees, have decided to honor some religions. I don’t want us to go down a path of data collection and then saying “well, if x% of the students are of _____ faith then we will close school” etc., but I also know we do have a significant Muslim population and this is one way of demonstrating our commitment to this group. It is certainly tricky and I very much appreciate your interest.

  6. Owen

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Marc,

    Thank you! It is tricky, isn’t it? It’s not as if anyone is going to object to adding a Muslim holiday to the calendar. But some may wonder what the official threshold–the underlying rationale or test–is for adding a holiday to the school calendar is. Is it a percentage? Is it how you ask? Is it the mood and composition of that particular committee? This is what makes sticking to what we might call post-office or federal holidays attractive to a person with an orderly cast of mind. Then the policy is clear–we follow the government calendar, and use some of those as “anchors” for longer breaks. Anyway, whatever you all do, people will probably see the good in it.

  7. marcmcgovern

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    It is very tricky. I think there are times when elected officials need to do “what’s right” and not get too bogged down in always asking for data or numbers. For example, when folks fought so hard for gay marriage, no one said, “well if X% of the population is gay then we’ll do it.” The legislature did it because it was the right thing to do if we truly believe in an equal society. I don’t think we will ever come up with a number or percentage. I just think its the right thing to do if we are going to do it at all. Anyway, thank you again for your interest and taking the time to comment. If you ever wish to discuss any other school issues, I can be reached at marcmcgovern@gmail.com

    Marc

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