Randolph, NJ school district angers another ethnic group over calendar
RANDOLPH — After more than two hours of public comments, the township Board of Education on Tuesday narrowly rejected a motion to restore a second day to the school calendar for Rosh Hashana — a religious holiday for the Jewish faith.
The Randolph Board of Education last considered the issue in November after putting out a survey to district families on which holidays were most important to them.
In May 2021, the same board's decision to briefly rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day (while never removing it as a day off for schools), similarly prompted public backlash, largely among residents of Italian-American heritage.
Unlike that change, which ultimately was reversed, this time a resolution to reverse course was rejected by a 5-4 vote.
Instead of a second day for the two-day Jewish holiday, the school district calendar for September of the 2022-2023 year only includes Monday, the first day of the religious holiday.
Legislators urge board to reconsider
The controversial issue drew some notable elected officials on Tuesday.
Kicking off Tuesday’s public comment was state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, who similarly spoke out against the 2021 decision to rename the October school holiday.
“I do think that a further dialog is warranted because of — how much this means to the Jewish community,” Bucco said, adding that while he understands the need for 180 days on the school calendar — it is “one of the highest holy days in the Jewish religion.”
Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, spoke next, encouraging the board to rescind the calendar change.
“Too much has happened here, there’s been too much turmoil in Randolph,” Bergen said to applause from the crowd in attendance. “This is not the right time to do more.”
Morris County Commissioner Debra Smith, of Denville, then spoke on the same issue, saying the board appears to have “a fixation with cleansing the school system of American history and our traditions.”
“This year, Rosh Hashanah has been targeted for scrubbing. Last year, it was Columbus Day — a thoughtless insult to Randolph’s descendants of Italian immigrants,” Smith said.
She called the previous handling of the Columbus Day issue "another board knee-jerk misstep.”
Randolph’s Jewish historical significance
“This is not just some town that happened to have some Jews suddenly move it — this township is a piece of Jewish history in our great nation,” Smith said, urging the board to reconsider its decision and vote that night to reverse the removal of the second day of the religious holiday.
In the early 1900s, Randolph township built a retreat reputation as a “Catskills” of North Jersey, Smith said, as the Jewish community helped to build local businesses and create a vibrant residential suburb.
Mount Freedom Jewish Center, Randolph's first synagogue, was established in 1923 to "serve the summer and bungalow communities of Morris County," according to its website. It grew alongside the surrounding population.
Morris County Commissioner Director Tayfun Selen also spoke in support of restoring the second calendar holiday in observance of Rosh Hashana.
He asked that the board “with all do respect,” “focus on policies that help better our children's educations including their understanding of history and how that unites us as a nation.”
The commissioners were followed by more than two dozen area residents, overwhelmingly speaking on the same issue.
“How will eliminating the second day of Rosh Hashana improve equity and inclusiveness in schools,” the final public speaker said.
School Board President Ronald Conti said that the process had been a transparent one, beginning back in June in front of the community.
Questioning the decision
“As I educate myself further — I begin to wonder, did we make the right decision,” board member Susan DeVito said, prompting applause. “I feel like I didn’t do my best work as a board member and I want to apologize to the community.”
She said her notes show that despite the majority of the survey for the upcoming year supporting spring break after Easter, the board still decided to schedule it before — from April 3 to 7, to be "inclusive of Passover" 2023.
This year, for 2021-2022, Passover starts on the Friday of Randolph school’s spring break, which is also the week before Easter Sunday.
DeVito said there were probably questions posed to the community in the holiday survey they could have worded better.
She said that her support of the current calendar in part was based on the struggle of working families to pay for childcare on days where students are off.
Board member Tammy Mackay also responded to public comments, saying after listening and respecting those views, “I must say that we agree to disagree."
“To me, the issue is not about religion,” Mackay said, as a public school district the only basis for days off should ultimately be whether there is “secular justification” for doing so.
Board member Michael Giordano then introduced a resolution on the reversal of the removal of the second day observing the holiday.
The resolution failed in a 5-4 vote, after which the board took a five-minute recess.
“I am disappointed that the Board did not restore the holy day back to the calendar. The vote was 5 to 4 and that clearly shows that after listening to the leaders of the Jewish community, the board remains split over this issue,” Bucco said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 News on Thursday.
“The board’s decision continues to put families in the unfortunate position of having to choose between worshiping as a family or sending their children to school.”