While Seattle parents take photos, shed tears and send their kids off for the first day of kindergarten on Monday (Sept. 10), many Jewish families will be forced to choose between meeting an educational milestone and observing Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
“It is truly one of the holiest days of the year that people spend with their family and community in synagogue,” says Rabbi Allison Flash, Assistant Director of Education at Temple Beth Am. “Starting kindergarten on Rosh Hashanah is equivalent to kids starting it on Easter Sunday.”
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, introspection and repentance known as the High Holy Days. Jewish communities attend prayer services in synagogue and hear the blowing of an ancient instrument called a shofar, which is made from a kosher ram’s horn. Afterward, families and friends gather to eat a round challah (representing the cycle of the seasons/eternal life), and taste apples and honey (signifying hope for a sweet new year).
The Jewish population in Seattle grew by 70 percent between 2001 and 2014, according to research from Brandeis University in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. The 2014 study estimated that the Jewish community was composed of around 63,400 Jewish individuals. An estimated 13,800 people in that total were Jewish children (aged 17 and under). The population has continued to increase as rapid job growth in the science, tech and engineering industries attracts more well-educated and ideologically progressive Jewish millennials to Seattle.
Jackie Kleinstein, a Seattle mother of two, looked forward to watching her daughter start kindergarten on the same day as her peers at John Rogers Elementary. But when she learned that the family would have to choose between a quintessential coming-of-age experience and observing one of the most significant Jewish holidays, there was no question.
“It’s just what you do,” says Kleinstein. “My daughter loves going to synagogue for the High Holy days, she looks forward to it every year.”
The Kleinstein family felt that honoring their Jewish heritage was especially important in the current political climate. The number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the United States surged 57 percent in 2017, according to an annual report by the Anti-Defamation League. About one-third of Seattle Jews reported some type of anti-Semitic experience in 2015, mostly in the form of Jewish “jokes,” use of stereotypes or comments related to Israel.
“In these times, I think it’s more important than ever to be confident and secure in celebrating our Jewish traditions,” says Kleinstein.
Seattle’s school calendar has historically avoided conflict primarily with Christian holidays. Faith leaders hoped that by taking proactive steps, important holidays in minority religions would also be recognized and respected.
Rabbi Flash and 40 faith leaders from across Washington state sent an interfaith letter to State Superintendent Chris Reykdal asking for his help encouraging school districts to refrain from scheduling major events such as homecoming, picture day, important exams and field trips on days that are holy to Jews, Muslims and Hindus. The letter included a short list of dates significant to minority religious communities.
“This is not a Jewish issue,” says Rabbi Flash. “This is about making an educational experience that is equitable for everyone, not just those in the majority.”
Reykdal was receptive and sent a message of support in a May bulletin to school districts. “Schools that plan around major religious holidays convey to all students that they are a meaningful part of their school communities and their religious traditions matter,” Reykdal wrote.
The bulletin came after many school districts had already created their calendars, but administrators in the Mercer Island, Issaquah, and Northshore district worked with faith leaders to offer a compromise option that was inclusive of all incoming kindergartners.
Over the summer, members of the Jewish community testified at Seattle School Board meetings about the importance of honoring the religious holidays of minority groups, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle collected signatures for an interfaith sign-on letter addressed to new Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau.
“My family’s first interaction with the school district is one of disregard, even if no disrespect was intended,” Jon Turow, Seattle parent of two, said during the public-comment segment of the July 11 board meeting. “My daughter’s first step in this important new phase of her life is one of exclusion.”
Despite the advocacy efforts, the first day of kindergarten for Seattle Public Schools remains scheduled on Rosh Hashanah. In a statement to Seattle’s Child received August 23, Seattle Public Schools Office of Public Affairs wrote:
“Seattle Public Schools recognizes and regrets the conflict of these two important events. Serving a wonderfully diverse and multicultural family community inevitably does pose some challenging scheduling issues.
Several factors contributed to this year’s schedule. The district’s calendars were determined three years ago as part of staff collective bargaining agreements. The later start date for kindergarten students arose out of a state requirement governing the transition to kindergarten, called WaKIDS. Held during the first three days of the school year, Family Connection visits are an opportunity for families and students to meet with their teachers at the school to share students’ strengths, abilities and needs.
Our Teaching and Learning staff has worked to ensure principals are aware of all of the religious observations, and honor the choice of families if they decide their child will be home on the first day of school, or any other day that conflicts. In a community as diverse as Seattle, and a district serving 150 countries of origin, observance of religious holidays occasionally overlaps with important school year dates, as is the case with Rosh Hashanah and the start of school this year.”
Faith leaders are hopeful that next year, diverse community voices will be included in creating a district calendar that, to the greatest degree possible, respects the religious backgrounds of all students. If not, Rabbi Flash fears that kids will learn a painful lesson.
“It teaches children in minority religious groups that they don’t matter because nobody took the time to figure out how to honor their community and traditions,” says Rabbi Flash. “But even worse, it teaches the children in the majority culture that minorities don’t matter. And that’s a very dangerous message to send in today’s world.”