'Holy day, schmoly day'

August 29, 1994

That conflicts arise between secular events and the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar are understandable: The Jewish New Year changes from year to year (though it always falls in early autumn) and Jews comprise less than 3 percent of the population (although Maryland has the third or fourth largest percentage of Jewish residents in the U.S.) The ignominy comes when public institutions are alerted to conflicts between secular and religious calendars -- and ignore them anyway.

That happened last year in Annapolis when the U.S. Naval Academy held its big homecoming event on the Jewish day of repentance, Yom Kippur. It was narrowly averted in Baltimore and Harford counties when the boards of education there decided to adjust school calendars so Jewish children wouldn't have to miss the opening of school to celebrate their New Year. Now, the oversight is recurring in Harford County.

The Harford County Council recently scheduled a hearing on a major revision of government ethics legislation for Yom Kippur. (The council president, a Protestant minister, says he'll seek agreement from other council members to continue the hearing onto another night, although the night of continuance he's chosen also happens to fall on a major, albeit less holy, Jewish holiday, Sukkoth.) Meanwhile, the county school administration has scheduled an open house to introduce parents and students to the new Emmorton Elementary School for Sept. 6, which is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Ironically, the school board just months ago decided not to begin the school year that day so as not to exclude Jewish families from the very social activity of the opening of school.

School officials counter that they couldn't hold the event on Sept. 5, Labor Day -- that would be ludicrous. That's exactly the point: Why should the major holdiays for Jews be ignored? In all but the largest Jewish communities in the U.S., Jews don't expect their culture to be reflected in aspects of secular life. They don't expect schools or governments to close on their handful of holidays throughout the year (at least when they don't fall on the opening of school or some other key event.) But it doesn't seem too much for community leaders to avoid conflicts, to respect a minority's holy days as they do their own. Officials, like those in Harford, can't simply throw up their hands and say they had no alternative. If, as they insist, they want to be sensitive to this concern, they have much room to improve.

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