Monday, May 27, 2024

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.”