Yom Kippur scheduling conflict settled harmoniously for bands

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Shaina Gopen is as dedicated as any teenager in the Los Altos High School Eagle Marching Band.

A member of the color guard, she worked all summer on flag and dance routines. She gets to practice by 7 a.m. every day before school and stays after school twice a week.

But when she and her family found out that an important band competition would fall on Yom Kippur this year, the 17-year-old senior had to draw the line.

Gopen knew her decision would disappoint classmates, possibly jeopardize their performance and require her to miss an event she had spent countless hours preparing for.

"You feel bad," Gopen said last week. With even one color-guard member missing, she explained, "the show can't be everything it was set up to be."

Over the summer, a handful of people tried unsuccessfully to convince the community group that runs the Tournament of the Bands to reschedule the Oct. 11 event.

But earlier this month, the conflict for dozens of Jewish teens was resolved. Top administrators, principals and band directors at the Fremont Union High School District stepped in and forced a date change.

The annual tournament, which takes place at Cupertino High School and attracts up to 30 bands, was moved up one week to Oct. 4.

Jackie Berman, education specialist for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, couldn't have been happier.

"To me, it's an example that the schools are becoming more responsive to Jewish issues than they were in the past," said Berman, who worked with the Los Gatos-based JCRC to press for the rescheduling.

"I think it's also an example that the schools are generally trying to be more responsive to ethnic issues."

Two other High Holy Days scheduling conflicts ended similarly well, Berman added.

The San Francisco Unified School District had scheduled staff development days on Rosh Hashanah. And San Francisco's Lowell High School had set a parents' orientation on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Organizers changed both events after they learned of the conflict, Berman said.

The High Holy Days are fixed on the Hebrew lunar-based calendar as beginning on Tishri 1. But because the secular calendar is solar-based, the High Holy Days generally fall sometime during September or October.

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset Wednesday, Oct. 1, and Yom Kippur begins at sunset Friday, Oct. 10.

The JCRC sends out seven-year calendars of Jewish holidays twice each year to every superintendent and principal in the Bay Area. Sometimes it prevents problems; sometimes it doesn't.

The timing of Yom Kippur this year led to conflicts in the general community as well.

A two-day multicultural festival in Oakland called Festival at the Lake will kick off on Yom Kippur. Though repeatedly asked to reschedule, festival organizers were adamant that they couldn't change the date.

The conflict became a public relations disaster for the festival and led the organized Jewish community to decline an invitation to participate on the second day of the fest.

In contrast, the South Bay situation ended with -out discord.

Arlene Gopen, Shaina's mother, was the first parent to turn to the JCRC for help.

Gopen, a former member of a JCRC schools committee and a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, first talked to Berman in late May or early June.

Berman and others, in turn, appealed to the tournament organizers to change the date. They were told it couldn't happen; the tournament had been taking place on the second Saturday of October for more than 25 years.

In the meantime, some suggested that Shaina Gopen and other Jewish band members could show up for nighttime competition after sundown.

But the Gopen family wanted to stand on principle.

"I personally wanted people to understand what the holiday is," Arlene Gopen said.

In August, Berman finally decided to draft a letter asking the approximately 30 schools expected at the competition not to participate on Oct. 11.

But a last-minute call into Joe Hamilton, who took over in August as superintendent of the Fremont Union High School District, solved everything.

His immediate reaction: The tournament shouldn't take place on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

"Our district teaches respect for diversity within our community. And it's important for us, if at all possible, not to step on the toes of or to do offensive things to any group of community members and their culture," Hamilton said.

His answer was exactly what Berman wanted to hear all along.

"To me the really important thing was Joe Hamilton's response," Berman said. "His response was that it just wouldn't be right."

Berman wasn't the only one who suggested changing the date.

John Felder is the band director at Lynbrook High School, which also falls within the Fremont Union High School District. He is also a member of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

Last spring, Felder learned about the scheduling problem. He called to ask the tournament committee about the possibility of changing the date, even to Sunday, Oct. 12.

He was told it wasn't possible and didn't push the issue any further. Planning on showing up at the tournament after sunset, Felder told himself that scheduling conflicts for band members aren't uncommon.

"I just didn't feel it would have been productive for me to take a stand," he said. "And I didn't want there to be a backlash from the community."

Still, he was grateful that administrators were sensitive enough to the issue to force a change.

For Arlene Gopen, the outcome was an unexpected but pleasant lesson about speaking out.

"In the end, one or two people really can make a change."