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Long Island school districts add, study more religious holidays

Third-graders at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School in

Third-graders at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School in Merrick paraded through the hallways in their own class-designed dragon floats to celebrate the Lunar new year, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Long Island families are celebrating Lunar New Year on Saturday with traditional foods and plump red envelopes — and no worries about children having to miss school.

This year the holiday falls on a weekend when schools are closed. But the dilemma when it’s on a weekday — honoring tradition or going to school — ends for many Nassau families next year as an increasing number of Long Island school districts are recognizing additional religious holidays such as Lunar New Year, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.

School officials, parents and students say the designation acknowledges and celebrates the region’s growing diversity.

More than 150,000 people of Asian descent, including South Asians, live in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In Nassau, eight percent of the total population of 1.4 million people is Asian, and its school districts reflect this composition.

Last year, the Great Neck School district, which is 34 percent Asian, unanimously voted to mark Lunar New Year as an official school holiday. Other districts, such as Syosset and Jericho, quickly followed suit.

Mimi Hu, a Saddle Rock resident who led the Great Neck effort, said Thursday that the petition unified the community across ethnic and generational lines.

“It’s a sign that we’re really taking part in being active members in the community instead of just being passive participants,” Hu said. “People are recognizing that we need to help build the school district.”

As school districts begin to finalize calendars for the upcoming year, other ethnic communities are petitioning for the addition of religious holidays such as Diwali, an Indian festival.

Also under consideration are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, two major Muslim holy days. These holidays also follow the Lunar calendar, and the dates fluctuate annually.

In October, Syosset became the first school district on Long Island to observe Lunar New Year, Diwali and both Eid holidays, beginning with the 2017-2018 school year. More than 30 percent of Syosset’s students are Asian. The Herricks school district, which is nearly 60 percent Asian, decided earlier this month to add the four holidays to next year’s calendar.

Herricks school board president Nancy Feinstein said that the district had long been discussing the holidays and how to accommodate them in the schedule. The 2017-2018 school year will begin earlier than that of previous years.

“It’s really about being sensitive and responsive to the needs of our community,” said Feinstein of Roslyn. “In our district we pride ourselves on our diversity. We needed to demonstrate that in our actions for our community.”

Similar discussions have begun in East Williston and Roslyn. Petitions for greater observance of religious holidays are circulating across Long Island. In Suffolk County, Harborfields Central School District and the Elwood Board of Education recently decided to close schools for Eid al-Fitr next year.

Zahid Syed, commissioner of the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, said that the schools’ recognition of the holidays means that fewer students would feel the pressure of choosing between school and religion.

“Long Island is changing and new Americans are merging in this society and we should be flexible about these new American communities and respect their religion as others,” Syed said.

Isma Chaudhry, president of the Westbury-based Islamic Center of Long Island, said that honoring more religious holidays would instill in students a respect for all traditions.

“It’s very important that we grow our kids up in a place where there’s no room for divisiveness, no room for intolerance towards any ethnic or religious tradition,” Chaudry said. “It will speak volumes to the decision that Long Islanders take as a community.”


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