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LI Indian-Americans push for Diwali school holiday

Latha Venkat, left, Niketa Bhatia, Sunita Mahtani and

Latha Venkat, left, Niketa Bhatia, Sunita Mahtani and Jyoti Agrawal meet at Bhatia's Woodbury home Friday evening, Oct. 14, 2016. They are among the parents petitioning to make the Indian festival of Diwali an official school holiday in the Syosset-Woodbury school district. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Hundreds of Indian-Americans are petitioning for the religious observance of Diwali — also known as the Festival of Lights — to be declared an official holiday in the Syosset-Woodbury school district.

The petitions are part of a growing movement on Long Island to diversify school calendars by adding religious holidays beyond those already scheduled — observances such as Rosh Hashana and Christmas.

Niketa Bhatia, a Woodbury parent and elementary teacher, said she plans to present petitions bearing about 550 signatures to the local school board at a meeting scheduled for Monday night.

Bhatia, who moved to the United States from India as a child with her parents, added that her effort was inspired by a desire to see her two young sons learn something about Indian customs.

“When we came to this country, we didn’t celebrate Diwali that much — we were just busy assimilating into the culture,” she said. “But when I had kids, I realized it was important to share this beautiful festival with them.”

Syosset, Jericho and Great Neck were the first districts on Long Island to recognize Chinese New Year as a school holiday during the 2015-16 academic year. At least two Syosset board members have already voiced support for granting equal status to Diwali — a step that would be an apparent first in the Nassau-Suffolk area.

New York City’s school system recognizes Chinese New Year.

Michael Cohen, president of Syosset’s nine-member school board, said he felt petitioners were making a reasonable request, given the fact that both Christian and Jewish holidays already are recognized.

“What better way to respect the changing times,” he said.

Another board member, Joshua Lafazan, agreed.

“As a millennial, I’m part of the most diverse generation in American history,” said Lafazan, who is 22 and in college. “So of course, I’m always going to help make sure that Syosset is inclusive of all its residents.”

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival, which is also celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Each religion has different reasons for marking the holiday, though all generally light lamps or electric bulbs to signify the victory of good over evil, light over darkness.

On the Island, as elsewhere, people of Indian descent traditionally commemorate the day with family meals and visits to homes of friends, where gifts including sweets are exchanged. Diwali falls on Oct. 30 this year, though the date varies in accordance with a lunar calendar.

“It’s our biggest holiday,” said Indu Jaiswal, who lives in Garden City and serves as chairperson of the Indian American Forum, a regional cultural and civic organization. “If schools accommodate other religious days, they should recognize Diwali, too.”

Jaiswal signed the Syosset-Woodbury petition.

Supporters of the petition drive said a major factor behind it was the difficulty faced by Indian-American families in trying to honor ancient customs during Diwali, while also juggling children’s daily school schedules.

“You’re trying to visit grandpa, but the children have gone to school, so they’ll say, ‘I’m tired. Don’t bother me,’ ’’ said Beena Kothari of Dix Hills, president of the 2,000-member India Association of Long Island.

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