Groups threaten lawsuit over school year beginning on Rosh Hashanah

“It’s extremely sad that at this time of rising antisemitism we have to meet to fight this needless display of discrimination against Jewish students,” said Rabbi Barry Dolinger, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
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Published on July 8, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

As currently constructed, the first day of school in Bristol and Warren, Rhode Island falls on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a two-day holiday that is one of the holiest in the Jewish religion.

The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, in partnership with the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, the National Education Association Rhode Island, (NEARI), and the Bristol Warren Education Association (BWEA), held a press conference outside United Brothers Synagogue in Bristol on Thursday in response to the unwillingness of the Bristol Warren Regional School District (BWRSD) to amend the start date of its 2021-2022 academic calendar.

“BWRSD’s academic calendar does not treat religious holidays equally, and puts Jewish students, teachers, and staff in the position of choosing between school/work and religious observance,” writes the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. “Educators, families, and leadership in the Jewish community have reached out to the school district multiple times to discuss their concerns, with no changes made. It is concerning that holidays of certain religions seem to receive preferential treatment over others on the calendar. For example, BWRSD is closed on Good Friday. This places the value of one religion over others, and violates the principles of religious tolerance on which our state was founded. It is imperative that a uniform policy on religious observances is set, and we strongly urge BWRSD to reconsider how these holidays are treated.”

“People… have written letters, petitioned school committee members, the NEA brought forth a grievance, and they were all met with no changes,” said Stephanie Hague, Director of Community Relations at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island acting as emcee for the speaking program. “Jewish educators and families are not asking for anything egregious. They are simply asking for their first day of school not to be on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar…”

After working to get the school schedule on the agenda of the most recent school committee meeting, “when the item on the agenda came up, the school committee voted 5-4 against even discussing the topic,” said Donna Stouber, a Bristol Warren School District educator for 27 years. “They wouldn’t even discuss what it would mean to have the first day of school be Rosh Hashanah.”

“We filed a grievance over the first day of school being held on Rosh Hashanah,” said Jennifer Azevedo, Deputy Executive Director of NEARI. “During the grievance hearing on June 29th I explained to the committee that there are multiple ways to change the calendar, very simple ways to change th calendar…”

“My question to the school board is, and always has been, why?” said Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Habonim in Barrington. “Why is this so important? Why is it that you would punish a religious minority and make them choose between the first day of school and the religious observance of the highest holy day of the year, when you could easily, as Jen noted, fix it?”

“The school committee’s decision to force our school community to choose between their faith and their education is quite plainly discrimination,” said Michelle DaSilva, President of the BWEA. “What message is being sent to the children in our community?”

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“When other districts are making accommodations, when the state suggested accommodations, when there are simple fixes and a minority community comes forward and says we are aggrieved and here are the simple fixes that, by the way, other people in neighboring cities and towns are doing, will you consider it and they say ‘We don’t have time to discuss that. We will vote that off the agenda. We respond with hostility and indifference…’ That is the hostility and indifference of Pharaoh that says, ‘Leave, I have no time to be bothered with you. You’re pests.’ That’s the message we’ve all heard. ‘You’re like bugs. We don’t care,'” said Rabbi Barry Dolinger, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. “The school committee clearly fails in its mandate to understand what public school education is all about. One wonders with the lack of civility, with the lack of understanding of pluralism – Are these people fir to continue to serve? I hope they are voted out…”

“I’m not formally representing anyone here – yet. That is a threat said Rabbi Dolinger in response to a question about possible future legal action over this issue. He mentioned the possibility of a possible First Amendment lawsuit in federal court.

The next Bristol Warren Regional School District hearing is on July 19.

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