The issue dominated the board’s Aug 30 school board meeting in which speakers expressed concerns over possible repercussions of the trustees’ decision not to close schools for the first time since it became the district practice in the 1970s.
School Board President Jean Cohen said parents, residents and even non-residents brought up important points at the meeting that would likely weigh into how the district plans its calendar in future years.
“I didn’t want to offend anyone whatsoever and was very impressed with the speakers,” said Cohen, whose husband is Jewish. “Everybody had something very important to say to us and they did an excellent job getting their opinions and personal feelings across to the board—but it’s a tough one.”
She added: “Nothing is ever a closed discussion but I believe we will stick with this for the coming school year and will see what effect it has.”
The decision drew more than 100 people to what is usually the school board’s routine and sleepy last meeting before the start of the new school year.
Speakers, including Temple Sinai Rabbi Boaz Marmon, criticized the district for not being more upfront with the township’s Jewish community about the change and charged that the decision was based on inaccurate population figures. In fact, many found out about it this summer, months after the December decision. They expressed concern about the academic and social effects having school open will have on the Jewish population, adding that the change sends the perhaps unintended message that Cinnaminson is no longer welcoming of religious minorities.
Some noted that Jewish teachers would now have to choose between taking personal or sick days to observe the holiest of Jewish days—and that neither is a good option; they will either have to burn through their days off or be less than truthful about their reasons for calling in sick.
“This will deter Jewish families from wanting to live in Cinnaminson and sending their children to Cinnaminson schools,” said parent Rayna Koch, noting that her 12-yearold son is already stressing over jeopardizing his perfect attendance record and missing instruction in advanced math and English classes.
Koch also pointed out that the district’s assumption that there are just a handful of Jewish children among the 2,578 enrolled this year was based solely on the number of school-age families affiliated with Temple Sinai and some of the other area synagogues.
“We feel vastly underrepresented,” said Koch. “There are many more Jewish families and Jewish children in Cinnaminson that were not recognized. As someone who is not affiliated with a synagogue, my family was one of them.”
Superintendent Salvatore Illuzzi acknowledged that the data about Jewish students presented to the board was an imperfect estimate. He also admitted that his administration did not overtly reach out to the Jewish community to relay information about the change.
However, he said, the rationale is still valid based on changing populations of both students and teachers. Cinnaminson’s Jewish student count has never been large but, in the 1970s when the decision was first made to close on high holidays, far more teachers were Jewish. The driving factor then was that the high costs of hiring substitutes or inability to find enough of them to cover for the absence of Jewish teachers.
That has changed over the years. At best count, he said, Jewish teachers today number 15 of 400.
Illuzzi rightly pointed out that federal law prohibits school districts from closing to observe a religious holiday. They can and do close as a result of the impact of religious holidays on attendance.
Tamara Grossman, president of the Cinnaminson Education Association, confirmed that Jewish teachers number 15.
“We don’t like this either,” said Grossman, a high school special education teacher, noting that the union approved the calendar as is and she has no grounds to challenge it.
Moreover, Illuzzi noted, the student population has also changed dramatically in recent years. With a new 954-unit project on the riverfront, he said, the district has picked up 218 new students in this year alone. Many of the newcomers are Muslim.
“The Muslim population is equal to our Jewish population or maybe exceeds it, or certainly will,” he said.
“Are their holidays worth less than yours,” he asked, noting that the decision was to keep schools open for all religious holidays but excuse student absences without penalty.
Several in the audience voiced objection to the logic, saying they would rather the district close for both Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Following the meeting, Rabbi Marmon said he already has booked an appointment with the superintendent to discuss ways to minimize the impact on Jewish students. He said he is considering starting conversations with Muslim leaders and residents about working together on future calendar issues.
David Snyder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the agency would also continue to work with Cinnaminson and all school districts with calendar planning.
“We work with districts consistently to try to avoid students and faculty from being unfairly penalized over missing school in observance of their religious holidays,” he said.