In New Jersey, School Holidays Multiply as Faiths Diversify

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEWARK, N.J. _ To keep her perfect attendance record, Tahera Ali’s 13-year-old daughter used to go to school for only a couple of hours on the Islamic Day of Ashurah, getting out just in time to attend prayers for what is a holy day of sorrow.

“We wear all black on that date, and she would have to change in the car on the way” to the mosque, said the mother from Bridgewater, N.J.

This year it will be different.

Using a little-known process that intertwines education and religion, Ali petitioned her district and this year the day was placed on New Jersey’s approved list of religious holidays. On these days, individual students may be absent from school due to their faith, without penalty, even though it is not a districtwide holiday.

“I am so glad and thankful,” said Ali. “My children haven’t been absent since kindergarten.”

Setting of the religious calendars for schools can be a complex process, with the list ever-growing as the population of New Jersey becomes more diverse. The calendar now includes six religions and counts 75 days of the school year _ almost double the number from 15 years ago.

This year, it runs from the Islamic Day of Ascension on Sept. 1 to a Buddhist holiday on June 26 that celebrates His Holiness the 17th Gyalawa Karmpapa’s birthdate.

In between are Christmas, Passover and the first day of Ramadan, as well as Buddhist and Baha’i holidays. For state officials more familiar with pedagogy than theology, it can be a challenge to sort it all out.

“Each year we get a call that such and such holiday is based on the third rising of the moon, or things like that,” said Isaac Bryant, the state’s deputy education commissioner whose office handles the requests. “It’s been interesting, absolutely.”

The state Board of Education recently finalized the list, adjusting the dates for holidays that change each year for Christians, Hindus and Jews alike. After all, Good Friday next spring is April 6, a week earlier than last year. Yom Kippur moves from Oct. 13 to Oct. 2.

The list, lengthy as it is, is only a guideline for schools. Districts actually have the discretion to add their own days to the list as well, state officials said. By most accounts, only a small handful of students in even the most diverse districts ask for days off that aren’t district holidays already.

But the list is nevertheless a required regulation dating to a 1951 state law that prohibits schools from penalizing children for absences due to their religious faith.

“Educators are not religion experts, and this offers them some guidance,” said Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the education department. “This is an inclusive list, rather an exclusive one.”

Besides the date changes, this year’s list adds a half-dozen new holidays, including the Day of Ashurah, which commemorates the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain (marked on Jan. 29 in 2007).

Two prominent Buddhist holidays were also added, including commemmoration of the birthdate of Buddha himself, which falls on the first full moon in May, which next year will be May 2.

“It started when I noticed there were no Buddhist holidays on the calendar,” said Linda Eng, a mother and Buddhist from Teaneck, N.J., who first brought attention to the omission several years ago.

“It just seems strange to me that it was overlooked for so long,” she said. “There are many Buddhists in New Jersey, and it has certainly been around a long time. It was way overdue.”

Generally, a school district will tailor its calendar of days off to the makeup of its student body.

Enough students in Paterson, N.J., for example, observe the Muslim holidays that now the district closes entirely for the day after the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and also Eid al-Adha, the Day of Sacrifice.

“And on occasion, we might also see during Ramadan and the Friday prayers that a parent might request a child be removed,” said Linda Crescione, the principal of School 9, where about 40 percent of the students are Muslim.

The Day of Sacrifice can be a little tricky, she said, as it is based on the Islamic lunar calendar, making it an approximation on the Gregorian calendar. This year it is Dec. 31, so schools are off anyway, but last year it was marked on the state’s calendar as either Jan. 11 or 12.

“There was some debate whether one day or two days,” she said. “We approved it for one day, but if a family asked for a second day, we marked them as absent.”

The ultimate discretion rests with the districts, and school officials said they generally will approve parents’ requests.

KRE/JL END MOONEY

(John Mooney writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

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