Diwali likely to join Eid as a New York City Public School Holiday

Source: Flickr.com

When she was in the third grade, Rohita Land’s mother permitted her to stay home from school to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali. But unlike Christmas or Yom Kippur, Diwali was not an officially recognized holiday at Land’s Elementary School in Rockaways, New York. She missed a class pop quiz and was penalized by her school. The 33-year-old still remembers feeling sad that her school would not excuse her absence to celebrate a religious festival close to her heart.

Although the New York City Board of Education now permits students to miss school to celebrate religious festivals without being penalized, Diwali has not been recognized as an official holiday. Thus last week Land, now a financial consultant, was one of several enthusiastic supporters testifying in favour of a New York City Council Resolution that would establish Diwali as an official holiday for the city’s public schools. “I am so proud to see the very NYC schools I was raised in, finally considering this inclusion,” she said. “It’s a great step and a great lesson for our children.”

The City Council’s move to establish Diwali as an official holiday comes just one year after Eid was declared to be an official public school holiday in the city. The effort has won praise from Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs who celebrate the holiday also known as the festival of lights. At the same time, the move has drawn opposition from others who see the city schools calendar as already overburdened with too many days off for holidays celebrated by the city’s religiously diverse families.

The Diwali resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Daniel Dromm who represents Jackson Heights, a predominantly Hindu neighborhood in New York City, calls upon the Department of Education to declare Diwali as an official holiday for Public Schools in the city. The resolution also highlights that although over 205,000 residents of New York City celebrate this festival, it has not been recognized as a holiday in the public school system.

For Hindus, Diwali is the most important festival on the Hindu calendar marking the start of the New Year and is a 5-day celebration of the triumph of good over evil, of truth over untruth and of light over darkness. Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains also mark the festival of lights on the same days as recognized by Hindus but have their own distinct reasons for the celebration.

In March 2015, Mayor De Blasio officially added the two Muslim holidays of Eid al-adha and Eid al-fitr to the public school calendar. This prompted the Diwali coalition of New York City to file a similar petition for Diwali to be declared a public school holiday. The petition, however, was turned down by the Mayor. “I understand anyone’s impulse to add additional holidays, but at this point, I’ve kept my pledge, and I don’t intend to make any additions anytime in the foreseeable future,” he said. Mayor de-Blasio essentially stated that it would be difficult to ensure public school students receive the state mandated 180 days of education while adding yet another holiday to the calendar.

Proponents for the resolution stated at the City Council hearing, that since Eid was declared a public school holiday, Diwali should be as well. Cesar Cardenas, a consultant and spokesperson for the Arab-American Family Support Center came out in support of the resolution and said, “For many years, AAFSC fought for Eid to be established as a public holiday in New York City. And last year, our efforts paid off. Our children were finally able to spend these important holidays at home with their families, without worrying about missing school.” He further said that it was important for children of all religions to experience this.

The Diwali resolution has also garnered support from the National Advisory Committee for South Asian Affairs, Brahmin Society of New York, The Golden Age Community of New York, The Sikh American Friendship Foundation and the Diwali Stamp Project.

Ranju Batra, the chair of the Diwali Stamp Project, says that children should not have to choose between going to school and ignoring their faith or staying at home to observe their faith but missing school. “While my kids were in school we celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid. But since there was no holiday for Diwali, I sent my children to school at the cost of celebrating our most important festival,” said Batra. “But this is wrong, as having to choose between learning and religion is an unfair and harmful choice.”

Batra embarked on a seven-year journey of petitioning the United States Postal Service to issue a Diwali stamp in 2009. She finally realized her dream when they unveiled a stamp with a Diwali Diya last month at the Indian Consulate. She believes that such small victories will eventually lead to a much larger one- for Diwali to be declared an official holiday in the United States.

Diwali is typically celebrated by lighting lamps, praying to god every morning for 5 days, bursting firecrackers and exchanging gifts. It is an occasion where the extended family comes together to consume food unique to the festival. 16-year-old Atish Batliwala is a Parsi Hindu who attends a Public School in the city. Batliwala said he misses a lot of the Diwali festivities which happen during the day when he is at school. “I am tired by the time I come back from school,” said Batliwala. “I don’t have a lot of energy to celebrate after and it’s just not the same.”

However, some American parents opposing the resolution contend that introducing another holiday would be disruptive and will have an adverse effect on their child’s education. Peggy Heeney, a working mother who opposed the resolution at the hearing said that if this holiday is added, there will be more demands for holidays down the road. “Somewhere something will have to give, a shorter holiday for Christmas or earlier start dates,” she said. Another parent opposing the resolution said that these holidays can be extremely disruptive for working parents who cannot afford to take leave to watch their school age children or pay somebody else to watch them.

But, advocates for the resolution are arguing that New York City Public Schools observing other religious holidays is grounds for the resolution to be passed. Apart from Eid, New York public schools currently have holidays on account of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, Veteran’s day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Proponents for the resolution also contend that since the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the religious and historical significance of Diwali in 2007 and hosted the first congressional Diwali celebration in 2013, Diwali is recognized in the United States. They are also relying on the fact that the White House has been celebrating Diwali every year since 2003 as an argument for the official recognition of Diwali in New York City.

Thus, another parent, Rachel Pincu-Singer who opposed the resolution suggested that all religious holidays be eliminated and every student be entitled to 2–3 floating absences which can be used for religious holidays of his/her choice. Alternatively, she suggested that the decision should be left to the discretion of schools.

The Diwali Resolution introduced by Councilmember Dromm points out that the successful implementation of Diwali as a public school holiday in three school districts in New Jersey proves that the same can be executed in New York City as well. Councilmember Dromm said in a press conference that it is unfair that students in the city have to miss classes to celebrate Diwali while students of the Jewish or Christian faith do not have to make such a decision. “There shouldn’t be such discrepancy,” he said.

He also said at the press conference that the City Council will be voting on the resolution in the near future and he is hopeful that the Department of Education will declare Diwali an official holiday by the next academic year.