Dear School Officials, Please Don’t Excuse Absence from School Today. Encourage It.

Dear School Officials,

Today is Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. It is the Day of Atonement, a day of self reflection, of making amends, of atoning for transgressions, of doing repentance. It is a day of prayer, of fasting and of taking oneself out of our normal lives in order to be able to focus on these important themes.

Because of its importance in the Jewish calendar, this is also the day when congregations come together in their greatest numbers. Congregations see the largest attendance of the year on this day, and as such, it is an important day for the community to reconnect with each other and their spiritual leaders.

Rabbis like myself share what they believe to be their most important sermons of the year on this day. At my congregation we also use Yom Kippur, along with the other High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) which we celebrated 10 days ago, to promote our programs for the coming year, and we do projects of social justice including a food drive for our local food bank.

All this to say, Yom Kippur is an important day.

Because of the way the Jewish calendar works, the dates of the holidays change each year in relation to the Gregorian calendar. We Jews use a lunar based calendar for religious and liturgical purposes, which has a shorter system of months. And while the calendar is “solar corrected” so that the holidays fall during the same season each year, the dates do shift.

As such, oftentimes these holidays fall on school days. And since they are in the fall, they are usually close to the beginning of the school year.

When I was growing up in New York, schools closed on these holidays. (New York City public schools still close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) Not for religious reasons, but because so many of the teachers and students would be absent that it seemed to make sense. Now, however, I am living in a place with a much smaller Jewish community, and our kids — both my own and those in my congregations — need to take the day off in order to observe this holiday.

This is not always easy. Younger kids are easier to pull out of school, but as kids get older — and I am including my own son, a new high school freshman — they feel increasing pressure not to miss school. And this isn’t helped when important events such as tests or picture day are scheduled on these days or homework expectations are not modified.

So, school officials, I have a simple request. Please do not accommodate Jewish students’ requests to miss school today. Rather, encourage it.

Yes, please encourage Jewish students to miss class.

School is important, I understand that. But so is spirituality. In order to be a whole well-rounded person, people need a spiritual life, they need community connections, they need grounding in traditions. They need to be taught values and ethics and respect for others. They need to learn their roles and obligations as part of the human family. Please help model this message by encouraging kids to connect with their spiritual community. For some of us, this means missing school, but the benefits are enormous.

By encouraging kids to miss school for religious holidays, you will also be partnering with parents who wish to deepen their children’s connection with their faith and spiritual community. I know family-school partnerships are important. As a parent I want to support teachers and school officials in their work. And I would hope that teachers and school officials help me in mine.

I never imagined I would have the struggle with my own kids about missing school for the Jewish holidays, but I do. So I ask, on behalf of myself and the other Jewish parents in my congregation, please support our kids in missing school. Don’t just accommodate, encourage. Don’t just accept, celebrate. Together we can work to raise the next generation of kids who are studious and wise as well as spiritual and grounded.

Thank you for all of your important work,

Rabbi Seth Goldstein

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