PORTLAND, Maine — Jewish students in the city’s public schools will have to choose between attending the first day of school in September and worshipping on the Jewish New Year.
Jewish community leaders said they have been playing catch-up since the school board approved the 2013-2014 school calendar in April. They said they don’t understand why the decision was made to start school on one of their most important holidays, Rosh Hashana.
Portland schools traditionally open three days after Labor Day, which will be Thursday, Sept. 5. This year that coincides with the Jewish High Holiday, which begins at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 4.
Emily Chaleff, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said she has been in contact with the School Department and the Portland Education Association, the labor union that represents the city’s teachers, about finding an amicable solution, but one had not been reached as of Tuesday.
“Everybody agrees it would be beneficial to try to change the first day of school,” Chaleff said Monday. “The ultimate goal would be that the first day of school, which is a major event, not fall on the same day as Rosh Hashana. I don’t expect school to be closed, I just don’t think students should have to choose between Rosh Hashana and the first day of school.”
Most schools in the area start Sept. 3 or 4, or in late August. Portland schools are the only ones in The Forecaster’s coverage area that will start on Sept. 5.
At its April board meeting, the school board discussed the conflict in detail but decided to go ahead with the traditional starting date. In the end, members said, the decision was based on fairness to residents who observe other beliefs and religions and on conflicts with state law and teacher schedules.
At the meeting, teachers union President Kathleen Casasa urged against starting before Labor Day, which would cut into summer vacations.
Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said the feedback and the need for schools to have a minimum of two days to prepare for the first day went into the decision. And starting the next week would require a waiver under state law, he said.
“We need every bit of those two days to account for new enrollments and other changes,” he said, referring to the number of students switching schools in Portland. “To try to shorten that to one day would pose a risk that we wouldn’t be ready when students arrive.”
Caron also said with Portland’s religious and cultural diversity, the board would like to respect everyone’s needs, but it’s not always possible.
“Where we have discretion as a public institution, a secular institution, we can’t be showing favoristism for one religion or another,” he said. “We have to be more careful about addressing those issues with an eye toward fairness.”
The School Department tries to be sensitive, Caron said, and has accommodated some conflicts in the past by rescheduling board and committee meetings.
He said School Department staff are working with the Jewish community to find an agreeable alternative, but it’s unlikely that the board will revisit the issue.
Some Jewish community leaders, however, said they were not aware of the decision and feel left out of the discussion.
Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh, an Orthodox synagogue on Noyes Street, said he never received any kind of communication that the board was considering starting school on Rosh Hashana.
“For me, to be excluded from the process doesn’t feel good,” he said, noting that even the area Catholic schools that some Jewish students attend notify the community when school days conflict with religious holidays. “Even if we’re not taken into account, it’s nice to be notified and recognized that we exist.”
Herzfeld said the holiday is essential to Jewish identity.
“I think that Portland as a whole has been respectful of me and my synagogue and my community, and it’s peculiar that this is happening,” the rabbi said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t reach out to us.”
Chaleff said she remains hopeful there will be a compromise with the School Department.
“Our community just wants to understand why it had to be that day. We don’t expect them to close,” she said. “I’m hoping they will respond and start a conversation about this.”