May 21, 2013

Maine Voices: Next year's Portland school schedule makes diversity a low priority

To set the first day of classes on a Jewish high holiday is to say tolerance isn't all that important.

By Jacob Fogel

PORTLAND - The Portland School Committee recently confirmed a previously set schedule for the upcoming academic year, in which the first day of classes takes place Sept. 5, coinciding with the Jewish high holiday of Rosh Hashana.

Prior to this meeting, this mistake had been brought to the attention of the School Committee by a multitude of religious leaders and parents of affected students. The members of the school board were reminded of the significance of the holiday and the cultural insensitivity that was shown in scheduling of the first day of school.

The May 7 vote to confirm next year's schedule shows not only that the School Committee has little concern for religious minorities in Portland, but also that it has forgotten the importance of the first day of school in a student's life.

The first day of school is a big deal. I remember my first day of first grade, walking in through the seemingly colossal doors of Reiche School and, within the first five minutes, meeting individuals who would remain my peers to this day.

I remember my family snapping photos as I protested on my first day of King Middle School. I remember worrying what my new peers would think of me and if I would be able to deal with this, until then, foreign concept of homework.

Most of all, I remember my first day of high school, the grandness of the halls and the enormity of the auditorium as the principal addressed our incoming class with warmth and pride. Looking back, it's almost impossible to think about the important moments in my life without these images coming into my mind.

It enrages me to think that next year, there will be children going into first grade, or into their first year of high school, who will have to choose between honoring their religion and experiencing the first day of school with their new peers.

No one should be forced to make that choice and no one should have to be recognized as "the Jew" before they are recognized as "the artist," or "the scholar," or "the athlete," or "the musician."

Some may say that I am overromanticizing the whole experience, but even on a more practical level, the first days of school are important. One of the main reasons the School Committee gave for not rescheduling the first day of school was that there are so many things to be done from an administrative standpoint with respect to incoming students that it just wouldn't be feasible. Students who fail to report on the first day of school may miss out on crucial information that would otherwise have helped them to navigate their new environment.

This should not be confused with the stereotyped mentality of the victimized Jew in an anti-Semitic world. This isn't just about me or my people.

Portland has unique challenges in accommodating everyone's needs. During the school year, there will be conflicts between days of school and religious holidays. That is an inevitable consequence of living in a diverse community. 

What every religious community should be able to expect, however, whether in the majority or minority, is that when the School Committee is planning important events, that they not conflict with holy days.

Anyone with a computer need only type in "Eid al-Fitr" or "Yom Kippur" and note the dates on which these holidays will fall in the next 50 years. Is it really that tough to plan our academic calendars with appropriate respect for the members of our diverse community?

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