Windows and Doors

New York’s City Council voted to add two Muslim holidays to the city’s public school calendar, citing the annual observance of Christian and Jewish holidays. Mayor Bloomberg objects, saying the city isn’t obligated to accommodate all faiths: “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”
My heart tells me that we should include the two requested Muslim holidays in the school calendar. My head tells me that Mayor Bloomberg’s slippery slope argument is weak, at best. But the fact that most respondents to this issue do nothing more than bang the drum for their own cause, should make us all pause and ask what’s really going on here.
Not surprisingly, Muslims favor the new school holidays, conservative Christians and secularists oppose them (and you gotta love that alliance of convenience!), religious liberals favor them because “everybody should always be included”, and those who follow non-Abrahamic traditions remind us that whatever decision is made, it’s not all about the “big 3”.
How typical and how unlikely to get a solution which feels like more than knuckling under to religion in general or to one group in particular.
Instead of rushing to advocate for the “right answer”, I suggest we use this moment to ask new questions about the relationship between genuinely accommodating the religious needs of an entire society and the obligations which each group must assume for the society of which they are a part, in order for that accommodation to really work.
The case of the New York City school system provides a great opportunity to do just that, but it requires looking back to how the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came to be school holidays.

When the New York Schools began including those two Jewish holidays in the cycle of days off, Jewish pupils accounted for more than 20% of the student population and 40% of those working in the public schools were Jewish. This was not some long-drawn out philosophical or constitutional debate. It was simply a matter of practicality.
That does not mean that 20% is a magic number any more than the 12% of current students who are Muslim. It does mean however, that for a day of school to count, there must be a critical mass of students, so numeric thresholds do make a difference. Now would be a good time to admit that they do and begin asking what a reasonable number is.
But the 40% of public educators tell an even more powerful story and not simply one of collective bargaining. It’s about understanding that for an entire generation of Jews, the most Jewish career path to follow (except maybe doctor) was teaching in a public school. It was not about teaching in Jewish schools, but about being a Jew who thought teaching all kids was a sacred act — perhaps not according to many rabbis, but sacred nonetheless.
When any religious or ethnic group commits itself so strongly to serving the needs of the larger community of which they are a part, their particular group will ultimately benefit. I wonder what would happen if over the next decade, Muslim New Yorkers became key players in public education. What would happen if even 20% of those teaching and leading in our public schools were Muslims who were both committed to our kids and also to honoring their sacred tradition? My guess is that it would render this whole debate moot.
When public policy is made in light of obligations assumed instead of rights asserted, we are all better off. I still feel however, like the days should be included now. But if that is the end of this story, those who oppose adding these new days off, may turn out to be right.

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