PROVIDENCE — To Jewish people like Adam Greenman, Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect, to think about the past year and the year to come.
In some Rhode Island towns, though, the new year holiday in the Jewish faith has become the source of controversy, consternation and, potentially, litigation. That’s because some school districts in Rhode Island are planning to start school during Rosh Hashanah, and in the case of the Bristol Warren Regional School District, refusing to budge despite outcry in the local Jewish community.
“We’re a little surprised to still be fighting this,” said Greenman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.
School officials in Bristol-Warren did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The school committee, which picked the school start date as the traditional Tuesday after Labor Day, reportedly said it did not want to set a precedent: It’s never had Rosh Hashanah as a day off of school.
But critics say that because the first day of school would fall on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, it would force Jewish students and staff to choose between their religion and education. The Torah forbids work on Rosh Hashana and other important holy days. Jewish students would miss the first day exploring homerooms and trying new locker combos. Teachers and staff would be absent as a new crop of kids flowed through the doors.
About 2 percent of Rhode Island’s population is Jewish, according to Stephanie Hague, the Jewish Alliance’s director of community relations. That percentage fluctuates town by town. The alliance also recently fielded concerns from two families in Portsmouth about the schools’ start date. Some other districts in the state are planning to start during Rosh Hashanah — which starts at sundown on Sept. 6 this year and ends at sundown on Sept. 8 — but the Jewish Alliance is not getting involved unless someone raises the issue. In some towns without a significant Jewish community, that has not happened despite the start date during Rosh Hashanah.
Bristol, though, is one of the towns in the state that has a synagogue. And in the school district for kids in that town and neighboring Warren, there has been an outcry.
Hague, of the Jewish Alliance, said they’d like to see the school start on Thursday, Sept. 9. That’s what Providence is doing. But her group would be willing to compromise: Wednesday Sept. 8 is still during Rosh Hashanah, but the first day of the holiday, Tuesday Sept. 7 this year, is more widely observed and celebrated.
Rosh Hashanah is based on a lunar calendar, so it does not occur on the same date in the Gregorian calendar every year. It’s been decades since the holiday would land on the first day of school, and it will be decades more before it does so again, according to Greenman, of the Jewish Alliance.
The Rhode Island Department of Education put out a unified calendar that allows school districts the flexibility to pick a start date earlier than the traditional day after Labor Day. The unified calendar keeps vacation weeks and professional development the same statewide, which is easier on families and staff, but each district ultimately picks its own final calendar with a minimum of 180 learning days, spokesman Victor Morente noted. Morente said the Department of Education was working with the Bristol-Warren school district to “offer support.”
Michelle Way DaSilva, a seventh-grade math teacher and the co-president of the Bristol-Warren Education Association, said her local union has filed a grievance over the issue, but has not gotten any satisfaction at the school committee level. Now they’re seeking seek arbitration.
DaSilva, who is not Jewish, is concerned for the staffers and students who are. They include a building principal, she said. It’s an issue of discrimination, and also a learning experience, she said.
“Bottom line, we’d like them to move it,” DaSilva said. “It’s certainly a learning opportunity for our entire community. That’s what we’re all about, we’re in education.”