The Syosset school board unanimously approved petition requests by Indian-American and Muslim residents Monday night making festivals sacred to their religions school holidays starting with the 2017-18 academic year.
Members of both faiths filed into the South Woods Middle School auditorium for the board meeting with Hindu and Muslim representatives among them presenting the board with the signed petitions.
“I’m in disbelief, said Niketa Bhatia, a leader of the petition drive to make the ancient Hindu festival Diwali a school holiday, after the board voted. “but now I’m so happy.”
Bhatia said 600 people signed the petition.
The school board’s approval of the holidays likely makes Syosset the first public school district on Long Island to recognize the festivals as school holidays.
The Syosset, Jericho and Great Neck systems were the first on the Island to recognize the Lunar New Year as a school holiday, which they did for the 2015-16 academic year.
Diwali, a religious holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, is as important to Hindus as Christmas is to Christians and Yom Kippur to Jews, Bhatia said before the meeting. The festival is celebrated by more than 1 billion Hindus around the world, Bhatia said.
Muslim leaders collected more than 700 signatures on their request to make two major Muslim holy days — Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice — school holidays.
“We are thrilled,” said Dr. Uzma Syed, who led the petition drive. “We are so happy we were able to work together.”
Board President Michael Cohen said he pushed fellow members to reach a decision Monday night.
“I did not want to leave anyone lingering here. It means a real lot to me,” he said.
When the vote was announced, applause erupted among the hundreds in attendance at the meeting.
Hours before the vote, Hindu and Muslim supporters of the petitions underscored what the festivals mean to their faiths.
“It’s of huge cultural importance,” Jay Chandnani, 44, of Woodbury said of Diwali.
In India, Diwali is “the most auspicious day of the year,” he said.
Syed said before the vote that making a Muslim holy day a holiday “sends a good message because Syosset is so diverse.”
School board approval would teach the “values of different cultures and religions so that we can respect each other.”
She estimated that about 10 percent of students in Syosset schools are Muslims.
Bhatia, in remarks prepared for presentation to the board, said that until schools in the United States officially recognize holidays such as Diwali, “we will always be considered outsiders. Our children will feel the need to choose one culture over the other.”
Only with the embrace of Diwali and other religious and cultural holidays, such as the Lunar New Year and Eid al-Adha, “will these people be accepted as part of the American mainstream, forcing schools to make more efforts to teach about these other cultures even at the elementary level,” she said.
Sagorica Rudra, 53, of Syosset, noted that in India, many religious days are celebrated as national holidays including Christmas and Good Friday even though very few Christians live in India.
Each of the religions that celebrate Diwali have different reasons for marking the holiday, though all generally light lamps or electric bulbs to signify the victory of good over evil, and light over darkness.
The faithful traditionally commemorate the day with family meals and visits to the homes of friends where gifts, including sweets, are exchanged. Diwali falls on Oct. 30 — a Sunday — this year.
The dates for Diwali and the two Muslim holidays fluctuate from year to year.
Board member Joshua Lafazan said before the vote that the holidays would be “a wonderful opportunity for Syosset to celebrate our diversity. Any opportunity to make Syosset inclusive of all residents is an opportunity I’m going to jump on.”