High Holy Days still trigger minor conflicts at school…as Jews are forced to choose between two wo

Two years ago, when Erev Rosh Hashanah fell on Labor Day, Bay Area public schools delayed the opening of the fall term until the following Wednesday. Some even waited until Thursday. And in Palo Alto, Yom Kippur, which falls on a Monday, is a school holiday this year.

School districts are increasingly aware of the timing of the High Holy Days and the concerns of Jewish families, thanks to the efforts of local Jewish Community Relations Councils, which send seven-year Jewish holiday calendars twice a year to public schools from Sonoma to San Jose.

Principals are supposed to pass the dates along to their staffs, requesting that teachers take a sensitive approach and refrain from doing anything major in class on those days. The state education code prohibits religious discrimination.

But in spite of advance notification, good intentions and requests for sensitivity, issues still arise annually.

"Not a year goes by that we don't have a conflict in religious and secular life," says Cindy Coleman, teacher and Martinez mother of two.

Last year her daughter's Spanish teacher at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill would not allow the youngster to make up a quiz. Although the teacher said it would not affect the final grade, Coleman felt her daughter was being penalized for observing a Jewish holiday.

Lara Groch, a June graduate of San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, missed the first section of a three-part English exam because of the High Holy Days. Since the exams were given on consecutive days, Groch had to take the first and second sections on the same day.

"It was very stressful for me," she says.

Even at Piedmont High School — in a school district requiring that teachers neither give exams nor homework nor cover new material on the High Holy Days — Rebecca Wasserman's social psychology teacher scheduled an exam on Yom Kippur. Students reminded her about the holiday and explained that it was the holiest day of the Jewish year. They asked that the test be postponed, pointing out that almost one-third of the students in the class were Jewish.

The teacher "shrugged and said, `It's no big deal,'" Wasserman recalled. The test was given as scheduled.

And in Orinda last year, Jessica Oleon's debate teacher at Miramonte High School refused to postpone an in-class debate scheduled for the High Holy Days. Students planning to be absent were given an extra assignment, which in effect meant that they had to do twice as much work as their classmates. It was only after a petition was circulated and delivered to the principal that the "teacher did an about-face", Oleon says.

Oleon was disturbed. "There's a measure of disrespect [at a time when] there's so much effort toward becoming tolerant," she says.

That incident is not an isolated case. In the South Bay, Howard Levin, who graduated from Cupertino's Homestead High School in June, said he lost class participation points for missing school on the High Holy Days.

Such episodes are typical of the kind of reports received by Bay Area JCRCs. While flagrant violations of anti-discrimination laws are rare, subtler injustices create unpleasantness for the families and students involved.

"Every year you are reinventing the wheel and explaining [the High Holy Days] again," says Sharon Levin, mother of Howard.

Although administrators ask teachers to be sensitive, the ultimate decision of what goes on in the classroom is within the teachers' discretion.

The S.F.-based JCRC fields many of these complaints and advises parents and students on how to deal with school situations.

"The JCRC asks that students be excused [from school] without penalizing circumstances," says Jackie Berman, JCRC education specialist. "We expect schools to go part way and parents to go part way."

Although many of the same issues arise every year, Riva Gambert, associate director of the JCRC of the Greater East Bay, finds schools cooperative and accommodating when conflicts are brought to their attention.

Throughout the Bay Area, many schools have taken steps to accommodate Jewish students. Palo Alto schools have changed the date of their 1997 graduation because it conflicts with Shavuot. The Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin has amended its "warranted absences procedure policy" to make it simpler for students who are absent for religious observances. Schools have rescheduled back-to-school nights and adjusted academic requirements to accommodate the High Holy Days.

"You can't force teachers not to give tests [on Jewish holidays]," says Gambert. "But teachers will often agree to postpone them."

In Gambert's experience, problems arise not from insensitivity or bigotry, but from a lack of understanding of what the High Holy Days are about. Many teachers don't understand that studying, writing or working on these days are not permitted.

Gambert always advises parents and students to talk to the teacher involved first and get all the facts.

"A lot of parents don't want to talk to the teacher because they're the problem," Gambert says. "But you're creating a worse situation by going over the teacher's head." But if problems can't be ironed out between parents and teachers or administrators, the JCRC will get involved.

Until recently some schools required students to sign an independent study contract, requiring that some special project be done, if they were going to be absent for a holiday. But independent study contracts can no longer be mandated in cases of religious observances.

Rosh Hashanah falls on a weekend this year, so academic conflicts will be minimized. Unfortunately, it gives rise to a myriad of other conflicts, however, including school-sponsored social and athletic events.

Castro Valley High School has its first dance on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Piedmont High's varsity and junior varsity football teams not only have their first pre-season games on Erev Rosh Hashanah, but Friday, Sept. 13 begins the teams' annual "away weekend" in Calaveras. According to the coach, this gives team members a chance to bond. Of the 65 players, 12 are Jewish — almost 20 percent of the team.

Extra-curricular activities do not fall within the purview of the education code, which prohibits discrimination for religious observances.

"By law you can't prohibit a football game," says Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai. "But it shows a lack of sensitivity on the part of the school district. The coaches should be sensitive and fair enough not to put these students in a position of feeling they are forced to make a choice between their position on the team and their religious heritage."

But no one ever said it's easy to be Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian society.

"Jews often have to make choices in the world," Gambert says. "Part of being Jewish is making a decision to lead a Jewish life and that's something to be proud of."