The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District Board of Education was set to approve the 2020-21 calendar at its Dec. 4 meeting, but before regular business began, Trustee Dr. Nancy Kaplan announced that the item would be tabled until the new year to give trustees another month to decide if they want to include the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
For the past two years, Muslim families in the community have attended the Central High School, North Bellmore and North Merrick Board of Education meetings to advocate for Eid’s addition to the school calendar, arguing that observant students should not be forced to choose between education and faith.
Frustrations peaked at Central’s September meeting, said Merrick resident Rania Elbaz, when one of the topics was Section 3210 of New York state’s education law, which details attendance requirements. Under the statute, trustees are to determine whether holding school on a religious holiday, such as Eid, would result “in the waste of educational resources because a considerable proportion of the student population is unlikely to attend because of a religious or cultural day of observance.”
Elbaz said this was the first time she and other supporters were made aware of the statute. Referencing the law at the Dec. 4 meeting, she said, “We understand it means we are not legally entitled to have our holiday, but at the same time it is very vague, and [relies] entirely on attendance records — which seems to be the only way to quantify the Muslims in the community, according to the board. [It] really defeats the whole purpose of us being here.”
In response, Elbaz posted a petition to Change.org in mid-November, asking the Bellmore-Merrick districts to close school in observance of Eid. The petition had more than 500 signatures at press time.
“Closing school allows Muslim children to celebrate their most sacred holidays without fear of falling behind,” the petition reads. “In today’s highly competitive academic environment, this amounts to asking Muslim students to choose between their academics and their faith, something we don’t ask of their Christian or Jewish classmates.”
What is Eid, and who observes it?
Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of the 30-day Ramadan fast, and Eid al-Adha celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram in place of his son Isaac. In the Muslim faith, families celebrate the holidays from sunset to sunset by enjoying feasts, exchanging gifts and going on scavenger hunts in their communities
New York City public schools have recognized Eid since 2015. Administrators have mapped out a plan to coordinate school calendars for the next 30 years, since the dates of the holidays change annually based on the lunar calendar.
A number of schools in Nassau County — including East Meadow, Herricks, Jericho, Syosset and Valley Stream — have added Eid to their calendars, and some districts also observe the Hindu holiday Diwali.
Eid did not fall within Bellmore-Merrick’s 2019-20 academic calendar, so the board did not vote on its inclusion in January. In May 2021, however, Eid al-Fitr falls on a Wednesday. Elbaz’s petition argues that adding the holidays would only require schools to close for an additional day or two per academic year.
Students speak out
During public comment, 12 people — Muslim and non-Muslim — spoke in favor of adding Eid to the calendar. Four of the speakers were students.
Elbaz’s son, Amir Ibrahim, a sixth-grader at Camp Avenue Elementary School, advised the board to take the petition into consideration. “It’s a hard decision every year that Muslim families have to make to send their kids to school on Eid or not, because if they don’t, they could be at an academic disadvantage, and that’s kind of unfair,” he said. “If [we had] Eid off, it could erase that problem.”
Alisha Marfani, a freshman at Mepham High School, said that choosing between a religious holiday and school is “a choice that no kid should ever have to face.” Her sister, Summer, a sophomore at Mepham, asked the board to consider the issue from the students’ point of view.
“To see our holiday being pushed off and seen as an inconvenience,” Summer said, “we feel left out, and we don’t feel included.”
Reza Aziz, a junior at Calhoun High School, argued that adding Eid to the calendar would enlighten non-Muslim students of what the holidays stand for, and make them more accepting of the Islamic religion in general.
Calhoun Principal Nicole Hollings “always encourages us to bring the student populations together, and . . . to be accepting of other groups,” Aziz said, “and I think that this is the way forward.”
Kaplan said the board’s education about Eid and the impact it would have if included on the calendar has given trustees “a greater sensitivity” to the experiences of the community’s growing Muslim population. (see box)
“We have looked at this issue over the last 18 months in a way that I don’t think we’ve looked at any other issue except school security,” she said. “We need to come to the best decision for everyone, and we are trying to do that. We’re not there yet, but we’re going to be there.”
The board will vote on the 2020-21 calendar at its next meeting on Jan. 8, at 8 p.m., at Brookside School, at 1260 Meadowbrook Road in Merrick.