This Monday, September 14, is Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), one of the two most important holidays in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), one of the most significant holidays for Muslims, both happen a week later.
To many, these are just regular school or work days. However, my three kids will miss out on classroom assignments on Monday since they'll be at home, celebrating the Jewish New Year. It's never easy negotiating the Jewish holidays, and I often find myself disappointed that schools (and workplaces) often need constant reminders about Rosh Hashanah.
Canada, especially its larger cities, is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse. And with this diversity comes questions on how to accommodate different religious holidays. Right now, the only holidays that are officially recognized are Christian ones. Currently, the Ontario government states that each school board should “have religious accommodation guidelines in place and communicate these guidelines to the community.” This means that if a test or school assembly conflicts with a religious holiday, then the student is allowed to fulfill the requirements another time without penalization.
But at a local level, schools are often oblivious to major holidays. For example, when our local elementary school planned a trip to the Toronto Islands during the Jewish high holiday, the kids were exempt—but putting parents in the position where their kids miss out on class fun and bonding experiences in favour of a staid day at the synagogue or dinner with extended family isn't fair.
New York City recently added two Muslim holidays to their school calendar. Both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting) join Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Christmas and Easter as holidays for everyone. Not only does it give the days off to Muslim and Jewish students, but it brings increased awareness to the holidays celebrated by other faiths.
I'm not arguing that all religious dates should be holidays for staff and students. However, I do think schools have a responsibility to take a closer look at the demographics of their student body and schedule any tests or class events around those significant dates. This is what the Peel District School Board (which serves Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga in Ontario) does. Since 2005, teachers have received multi-faith calendars they can refer to when planning out the school year.
However, according to this CBC article, it doesn’t prevent teachers from neglecting to inform parents their kids are exempt on those days to observe their holiday. And the multi-faith calendar educators are provided with doesn’t stop teachers from going ahead and scheduling tests on religious holidays.
It's even a battle sometimes in the workforce, with many corporations insisting that certain religious holidays be marked down as a vacation day. How difficult is it to not schedule a meeting for a small handful of days a year so that other faiths can observe their sacred events? Can you imagine the uproar if people had to use a vacation day for Christmas?
Even though my family is not particularly observant, I feel strongly that major religious holidays should be treated equally at school and in the workplace. It'll send the message that diversity is important and valued, and that everyone's faith is on an equal plane. Now, that’s the kind of lesson I want for my kids.