Prom or Passover? Schools making progress on accommodating the diversity of Santa Cruz County

Ken Chizinsky, Debra Feldstein, Arielle Chizinksy and Jonah Chizinksy.
Ken Chizinsky, Debra Feldstein, Arielle Chizinksy and Jonah Chizinksy.
(Via Debra Feldstein)

Debra Feldstein, a mother of two high school students, wants her children’s religious holidays to be considered as important as any other child’s. That’s why each year her children have been in school, she has been asking school officials to plan events around Jewish religious holidays, and those of all religious minority groups. Now, after several updates, she’s feeling cautiously optimistic. 

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Debra Feldstein is a bit frustrated, and cautiously optimistic.

Since her older child started going to school 11 years ago, she’s been asking teachers, principals and administrators if they could consider not having picture day, school dances or crucial testing happen on important Jewish holidays, such as the Rosh Hashana New Year’s celebration happening this week.

“I have been fighting this battle every year for 11 years,” she told Lookout on Wednesday. Now, given new efforts to respond to such concerns by both the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and some local districts, she sees movement.

Her kids, Jonah Chizinksy, 16, and Arielle Chizinsky, 14, are both now at Santa Cruz High School, having attended the private Gateway School and the public Bay View Elementary and Mission Hill Middle schools.

It started with her son’s first picture day in kindergarten. She noticed early enough that it was being held on a Jewish holiday, so she requested it be changed, and it was.

Four years ago, there was testing in his math class on Rosh Hashana — a day he stayed home to celebrate the holiday.

Last spring, her daughter’s school scheduled a dance for the first night of Passover.

For Feldstein’s family and others, it’s the equivalent of testing or a school dance on Christmas Eve.

All of these, and many more, fueled her advocacy writing to school officials over time.

While scheduling conflicts are among her greatest concerns, she has also felt her children have been isolated by the regular inclusion of certain religious holidays, such as Christmas, in daily activities — watching movies about the story of Jesus Christ in December or making crafts involving Santa Claus.

She recalls her children asking her why they were coloring Santa Claus and why they were decorating an ornament when they don’t have a Christmas tree. Over the years, she said, her kids asked for a Christmas tree in their home, so they could feel included.

But in these past few months, several changes have Feldstein feeling hopeful.

To encourage school districts to schedule around religious holidays, and thanks largely to Feldstein’s advocacy, the County Office of Education published a religious holidays guide for school districts last month for the first time. The guide includes a list of Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays, Christian holidays and holidays celebrated by the Baha’i faith.

The guide is just that, guidelines, and the county’s 10 school districts make their own decisions on scheduling and questions of inclusion.

“We see it as just another step forward and to be more inclusive. I think the process has mainly looked at Santa Cruz City Schools, because we were impressed with the board policy they had in place,” said County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.

Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro said the district has always worked to avoid conflicts and will continue to update its policies to ensure everyone feels included. She said in her time, the district has received similar complaints from two other families. Munro also encourages families who have any unmet needs to reach out.

Feldstein said although there might be only a few people who have reached out to schools regarding scheduling around religious holidays over the past couple of decades, that’s not a reason to brush it aside.

“That’s not the point of anti-discrimination laws. The point is to create protections for the minority, right? That’s the whole reason,” she said. “It’s like if one kid can’t make it up the stairs — it isn’t a reason to not put a ramp on a building.”

Temple Beth El Senior Rabbi Paula Marcus, who has worked on similar issues for years, said that she was glad to be consulted by the COE for its religious holidays guide, and was encouraged when Munro called recently to ask her about scheduling finals testing for the winter so it wouldn’t interfere with Hanukkah.

“That had never happened before,” Feldstein said.

Marcus and Feldstein grew up in Jewish communities, in Illinois and New York, respectively, where their schools closed on Jewish holidays.

Marcus leads Temple Beth El in Aptos, which counts 575 members; there are an estimated 6-8,000 Jews in Santa Cruz County.

Bruce Burnett, an unofficial spokesperson for the Watsonville Islamic Center, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the COE reaching out to the center about the holiday guide. He provided the COE with helpful information about how Muslim student attendance could be affected on Muslim holidays.

The point is to create protections for the minority, right? That’s the whole reason. It’s like if one kid can’t make it up the stairs — it isn’t a reason to not put a ramp on a building.

— Debra Feldstein

Burnett converted to Islam about eight years ago and is an active member in the South County community. He said he isn’t aware of families who have voiced concerns about scheduling conflicts, but he appreciates the COE and school districts making this effort.

“We’re multifaceted schools, we have folks coming in from very different traditions and cultures,” he said. “So it’s a good idea to allow folks to be open to that to understand — why do the Jews celebrate Passover, why do Muslims celebrate Ramadan and why do some children do fasting?”

He added that he doesn’t think there is a lot of awareness about different religious beliefs within Santa Cruz communities, so adding it to school curriculum and scheduling makes a difference.

While Marcus and Feldstein have felt tired by the years of feeling their calls were unheard, they understand schools have been overwhelmed and don’t mean harm.

“Everybody’s very kind and has the best intentions,” said Feldstein. “But this isn’t a complicated problem to solve. It’s a scheduling issue.”

Munro said her district is doing what it can while at the same time juggling student safety during the pandemic, amid a long list of other challenges.

“There’s so many things happening in our school communities,” she said. “We’re going to do our very best to make sure that we don’t create a conflict. We’re doing this because we believe it’s the right thing to do. We’re human, and there may be mistakes made.”

Across the county, Sabbah said districts were in different places when it comes to policies and practices. Some have a policy that specifically says that whenever possible, when they’re aware of a holiday, they’ll do their best to minimize conflicts.

At its Sept. 14 board meeting, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s board introduced a similar policy and will vote to approve it at its next meeting.

“We want to create safer spaces for students and inclusive spaces for students and that also needs to include where students and families are with religious beliefs,” said Sabbah. “We recognize that by increasing our understanding, we can create those safer spaces and be very thoughtful when we’re planning out activities.”

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