Teachers, community leaders urge Bristol Warren schools to change start

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BRISTOL – Despite numerous attempts to get the school committee to change the start date of school in the Bristol Warren Regional School District, school is still set to begin on Sept. 7, the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

On Thursday, July 8, concerned members of the community held a news conference in an effort to raise awareness of an issue that they consider to be discriminatory.

In explaining the need for the gathering in front of the United Brothers Synagogue on High Street, Stephanie Hague, director of community relations at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, said, “Sometimes when something remains unsolved, even after quiet advocacy, we must bring it to the forefront. We have written letters, petitioned school committee members, and the NEA brought forth a grievance... all met with no changes.”

The school committee has put discussion of the school start date back on the agenda for its next meeting, which will take place July 19 at 6 p.m. at Mt. Hope High School, 199 Chestnut St., Bristol. The meeting is in person or virtual. The link to the virtual meeting is here.

“I'm grateful to all of the individuals and partners who have come forward to work with the Alliance in our efforts to highlight the importance of starting the school year before or after Rosh Hashanah,” said Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Alliance. “I'm hopeful that after hearing the stories of why the holiday is so important, that those school committee members who voted against changing the calendar last month will join their colleagues on Monday to revise the calendar and support the Jewish community on one of our holiest days.”

The issue dates back to February, when the Rhode Island Department of Education issued its statewide calendar listing the first day of school on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. After the Alliance brought the conflict to the state superintendent’s attention, the calendar was amended.

BWRSD did not follow suit.

Donna Stouber, a 27-year teacher at Kickemuit Middle School in Warren, first called attention to the conflict. An attempt to bring the issue before the school committee was blocked. And on June 29, a subcommittee of the school committee chose not to hear a grievance filed by the Bristol Warren Education Association.

Stouber filed a discrimination complaint, which has been dismissed because she was told she can take the day off.

“This interferes with my ability to establish my rituals and routines with my students,” said Stouber. “Not all school days are equal. These two days are incredibly important. It’s not fair to students to deny these two days.”

Just think about all you’d miss in the first two days of school, she said.

As Rabbi Barry Dolinger, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, explained, “Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the year. It’s the head of the year. It sets the tone for the year. Just like the first two days of school set the tone for the rest of the year.”

Stouber, along with Jennifer Azevedo, deputy executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, and Michelle DaSilva, co-president of the Bristol Warren Education Association, all pointed out that the solution to the problem is an easy one – move the first day of school to a different day without altering the rest of the calendar.

“We implore the school committee to do the right thing…to move the first day of school… to have some respect for this community,” said Azevedo.

Azevedo said that NEARI are going to move forward with an expedited mediation.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, of Temple Habonim in Barrington, spoke about religious pluralism and accommodation of minorities so that nobody would feel excluded. He said that democracy is a balance of majority and minority rights.

“In every other year, the Jewish community hasn’t asked for the day off because they’ve felt like they were too small a minority to ask for accommodation. But this year, after a year like no other, Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of school and no child – or teacher – should be punished because of their religious beliefs. We understand the balancing interest.”

Rabbi Dolinger offered an analogy to Pharoah, who refused to listen.

“We never know when something is anti-Semitic. We never know what’s in someone’s heart or mind,” he said. “It’s the effect that matters. When other districts are making accommodations. When the state makes accommodations. And they [the school committee] say we don’t have time to discuss that. We don’t have to guess. We’ve asked and asked. We are demanding that the first day of school not be on Rosh Hashanah.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.