More and more people are contacting me with concerns about issues relating to the separation of church and state in our local public schools. Let me first say… I hear you!  I am choosing to share this info here instead of an email because this forum will give us an opportunity to publicly interact with one another regarding the questions we all have.

The challenges we face are, in general, not about a malicious effort to sideline our kids, but a lack of awareness and understanding of the religious needs of minorities in our community. I will submit to you that the primary challenge is ignorance (I don’t mean this in a pejorative way). The best antidote towards ignorance is education. I consistently find that my daughters’ teachers are understanding and supportive when we give them as much information as we can with plenty of notice.

So my suggestions start with two things: as soon as possible, write to your child’s teachers (or your child should him/herself if s/he is an older student) and explain, now, that your child needs to miss school on  certain days for religious reasons.

(Part of the problem we face is when our Jewish neighbors don’t observe holy days, I often hear from our school administrators  something like: “our Jewish teachers said it was ok.” If your school administrator or teacher has any questions about Jewish tradition and observance as they plan their calendars, I would be glad to advise on how to approach things as best as possible.)

My younger two daughters are in the Cobb County School District. I can see the Administration’s efforts to encourage faculty and administrators to be mindful, especially when scheduling events. Here is one example of their Diversity Dialogue Bulletin for Cobb County Schools. Cobb also has guidelines on using religious music in school: Cobb Country Guidelines on Religious Music. Yet, we often see conflicts with the calendar and different activities and tests.

Cobb, Fulton, and other districts in the State of Georgia do excuse absences for religious reasons. It was recently affirmed in Cobb’s literature here.  Fulton spells out the policy in its Parent-Student Handbook.

Regarding tests, there is no law or policy that prohibits faculty from giving tests on holy days. However, a parent who writes with plenty of time and is courteous and grateful will (almost) always be heard and respected. When I write that my kids will be missing school for the Days of Awe, Sukkot, Pesach, etc., I make a clear request to not schedule tests that day. If there must be one, to provide adequate opportunities for my daughters to make it up.

Another suggestion is to give your school’s principal a list of these holy days. (The Anti-Defamation League-Southeast Chapter gives a multi-year Jewish calendar to county Boards of Education, routinely.) You can ask them to encourage their faculty to avoid tests on these holy days so that our kids don’t feel penalized or stressed to make up the work. If there has to be a test, since it is an excused absence, an appropriate solution for a make up would be necessary.

I know we don’t want our children to receive a greater burden than necessary when it comes to their school work, however… I am going to make a plea: We will communicate to schools and to our kids that school comes before our selves and our spiritual health if we go into school on our holiest of days. Encourage your daughter/son to stand tall when it comes to their Jewish identity and observance. If we don’t, it becomes a very slippery slope in terms of connections later on.

I have also been hearing a lot about religious activities after school on school property. Due to Constitutional protections, there is no breach to have religious based activities in the school’s facility outside of school hours. So when we hear that there is an effort to have a Rise Up for Christ group in the public schools, or a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any other activity, it is legal for groups to do so. However, we need to be mindful  when the school itself distributes the information or a school sanctioned group like the PTA endorses it. Those are examples where the school’s leadership needs to be confronted because the school cannot advance a religious based club or class. So if groups have the right to meet after school, we also have the right to not be confronted or recruited to participate.

In high school, when students are thought to be more self-assured, there is more flexibility when it comes to recruiting among students. But in elementary school, it is not quite as open. When there are feelings among kids to join these groups, our kids sometimes don’t want to be left out or feel pressured. If there is a tone in your elementary school where your child is being actively recruited for such programs, you ought to contact the school principal and request that they intervene.

For more information about legal issues in our public schools relating to the separation of church and state, I encourage you to read the ADL’s Religion in the Public Schools.  The complete PDF document is here: http://www.adl.org/assets/pdf/civil-rights/religiousfreedom/rips/ReligPubSchs-PDF.pdf

If you are having difficulty, please feel free to contact me directly at rabbigreene@bethtikvah.com or 770-642-0434 x217. You can also contact Shelley Rose, Associate Director of the ADL-Southeast Region:

Shelley Rose
srose@adl.org
404-262-3470

One last thing… here is a sample of an email that I am sending to my own kids’ teachers, and I will copy the appropriate principal or vice principal:

Dear Ms. XYZ,

I wanted to write to you to let you know that the Jewish High Holy Days are approaching and my daughter, Yael, will be missing a few days of school.  This year, Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday and Friday, September 5 and 6. Yom Kippur doesn’t start until Friday night, so she will be in school that day. But there is another Festival immediately afterwards called Sukkot (the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles in English). She will be absent Thursday, September 19 for that holy day, too.

The next round of Jewish holy days are not until the spring.

We would be very grateful if her teachers do not schedule tests or major assignments on those days. She will be glad to make up the work. Since they are holy days and she will be in the synagogue for a fair part of those days, if she can get her assignments in advance, that will make things easier for her since she won’t have the time to do the make up work on the those holy days. It would be a great help if she can get as much work as possible done in advance so that it doesn’t become a challenge to make up her work. If she needs to do it after those days, we would appreciate a little extra time to make up that work.

Thanks again.

Fred Greene

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