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Groundswell for schools’ observance of Diwali and Muslim holy days

Niketa Bhatia of Woodbury presents a petition to

Niketa Bhatia of Woodbury presents a petition to the Syosset school board on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, asking that the Hindu festival of Diwali be designated a holiday on the school's calendar. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Syosset school board’s decision this week to recognize the Hindu festival of Diwali and two Muslim holy days as school holidays starting in the 2017-18 academic year is creating a groundswell in communities across Long Island, with similar movements in at least 10 districts and communities.

Not only that, the leader of the successful Syosset petition drive for school observance of the Muslim religious days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha said she’s heard from people across the country.

“It’s spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Uzma Syed, a Muslim leader and physician. “I’ve just been inundated with outreach from every single town you can imagine,” including some in New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois and California.

Syed said she got so many requests for help since Monday night’s vote that she is holding a public forum Thursday night at the Long Island Islamic Center mosque in Westbury.

Separately, the Jericho school board expects to discuss the topic at its meeting Thursday night.

Petitions for school observance of Diwali or the Muslim holy days now are circulating in the East Meadow, Half Hollow Hills, Herricks and Hicksville systems. Other districts and communities where residents are launching movements include East Williston, Elwood, Jericho, Plainview, Three Village and Valley Stream.

Syosset is the first district in the state to recognize Diwali as a school holiday, something even the diverse New York City public school system has not done, said Robert Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. The city system is the only other place in the state that has recognized the two Muslim holy days, he said.

The head of the Syosset school board called approval of the three holidays “a high point of my dozen years on the board.”

Teachers, principals and administrators in Syosset “just feel so good,” board president Michael Cohen said. “It’s like one of their proudest moments. They’re elated.”

Diwali, which marks the triumph of good over evil, also is known as the Festival of Lights. This year, it is observed Oct. 30.

Eid al-Fitr comes at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, signifies the end of the Hajj, Muslims’ traditional pilgrimage to Mecca.

The dates of all three holidays change from year to year.

Syosset “has now set a precedent,” said Sunita Mahtani, one of the leaders of the campaign in Syosset to have Diwali recognized. The school board “has shown how Syosset is cutting edge.”

The school board’s move and the reaction to it underscore how the Hindu and Muslim communities on the Island have grown, community leaders said. Syosset’s vote came a week after a major Hindu temple opened in Melville.

About 56,000 people of Indian descent — many of them Hindu — live in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Community leaders estimate the region also is home to about 80,000 Muslims. Many in both groups are professionals — doctors, pharmacists, engineers, teachers.

Henry Grishman, superintendent of the Jericho school district, said, “I would be very surprised if the Jericho school district is not approached to seriously consider both Diwali and Eid in future calendars. I think the district will seriously consider the request with the same degree of sensitivity that Syosset did.”

Niketa Bhatia, who led the Diwali petition drive in Syosset, said that, like Syed, she has gotten scores of requests for help.

“I think everyone is very excited. There are districts that have an even higher percentage of Indian population, and I think they’re all getting ready to do the same,” she said. “I think it was bound to happen. People were just waiting for it to start somewhere. Now they feel more comfortable and I think more empowered.”

The decision in Syosset “kind of gave us hope that it could happen,” said Farrah Mozawalla, a Valley Stream resident who contacted her district Tuesday about recognizing the Muslim holidays.

“It was just an idea floating around for a while,” she said. “It took people and their courage and community leadership to start it in one area.”

Heena Shaikh of Huntington said she is starting a petition drive in the Elwood school district to have Eid recognized. The Syosset decision “was amazing,” she said. “It’s about time.”

While many were celebrating, some school officials noted that declaring the religious days as school holidays will present challenges for districts to ensure they fulfill the state-mandated minimum of 180 days of class a year.

In 2012, Stony Brook University decided to eliminate all school holidays based on religious days to avoid honoring only some religions and to avoid cutting into the academic calendar too much.

“If you are going to start actually closing school down for all these various holidays, there is no way you are going to meet the minimum attendance requirements as required by New York State” unless you make some adjustments, such as eliminating other days off, said Charles Russo, superintendent of the East Moriches school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.


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