“You need a sharp mind, a clear focus and the right amount of energy to focus on God,” said 18-year-old Valley Stream South High School alumna, Abby Devi Arjune. “Not having the school day off for Diwali makes it harder to focus on God … I will continue going before the school board … We won’t stop until our voices get heard and our goals are accomplished.”
Despite having her requests to add Diwali to the school calendars denied twice by Central High School District Board of Education, Arjune, continues to advocate for the holiday’s inclusion because, she said, she hopes to be a voice for the students within the district who celebrate Diwali — a five-day holiday recognized by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains worldwide.
“I knew this wasn’t going to happen while I was in high school,” she said. “It’s good to be persistent and I’m trying to make a change not just for me, but for my fellow peers … It’s important to realize that you can make a change whether it’s big or small.”
At the most recent board meeting on Dec. 10, Arjune spoke for the third time, asking for one day off (the third day) to celebrate Diwali — and for the first time, she was joined by her younger sister, Sarah Minati Arjune, 14, who is currently a freshman at South. The school board again denied their request, citing a lack of absences from Hindu students within the district on the days that Diwali falls.
“Our community supports the recognition of Eid, Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other religious holidays, so our community should recognize Diwali,” Abby said at the meeting. “Picture yourself in high school … how would you feel if you had to run home immediately after the ninth period bell rings and start preparation for a celebration in less than two hours?”
“I’m a freshman and I’m in advanced classes ... I find it hard to celebrate [Diwali] when I have to make school my first priority,” her younger sister said. “We want to [celebrate Diwali] with care and love because God should have care and love … I feel we should have Diwali off because it is hard for kids our age to have to deal with the strenuous work of school and also have to make time for our holiday.”
For many, Diwali is about the concept of good triumphing over evil and light over darkness. It can consist of prayers for blessings or celebrating the New Year and a fresh start, depending on individual preference.
For the Arjune sisters, who are both Hindu, Diwali is celebrated for five days, which they said, requires a great deal of their time and energy. “I found it very hard to go to school and celebrate the holiday because I came home tired after school and wanted to take a nap,” Abby said, as she recalled her time celebrating the holiday while at South. “I was a part of extracurriculars, and Honors Society, so I didn’t get home from school until around 4:30 p.m., which made it harder for me to have time for the hour-long rituals.”
During the five days of the holiday, Arjune, Sarah and their family spend each day worshipping, praying and conducting different rituals. The third day, called Diwali or Lakshmi Puja, or the darkest night of the Hindu lunar month, holds the most significance within the five-day festival. On that day, families gather for a prayer to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and hold a feast, clean and decorate their house to let the gods in, and light diyas — which are traditional oil lamps — symbolizing the practice of bringing light to the darkest night of the month.
Without a day off to perform those rituals, the sisters maintained, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains cannot properly celebrate the holiday.
School officials again expressed their sympathies, but said their hands were tied due to state regulations regarding religious holidays and the associated student absence threshold that needs to be met for recognition.
“We can relate to your struggle. We cannot favor one religion over the other. We can’t grant someone a day off just because of a devotion,” school board President James Lavery said. “We told you in the past that we will continue to monitor this. Currently the percentage of students that are still attending on those days [of Diwali] is [too] high.”
According to Lavery, the board must base the decision to cancel classes for a particular holiday not on its religious significance, but rather on the number of students or teachers who would be absent that day.
New York State Education Department regulations dictate that individual students can be excused for the observance of religious holiday, with the option to make up the missed class time at a later date, and under to Section 3210 of New York state education law, school board trustees are to determine whether holding school on a religious holiday, 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.”
Lavery also mentioned that the holiday fell on a Sunday last year and this year it will take place on a Saturday. In 2021, however, Diwali will fall on a Thursday. The school board is aware of this, he said, and they will continue to examine the situation.
Melissa Koenig contributed to this story