Bridgewater-Raritan schools won’t add Hindu holiday Diwali to 2015-2016 calendar

Rajan-Zed-hindu-280x195BRIDGEWATER — Despite a Hindu organization’s plea, the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District won’t make Diwali an official school holiday in the 2015-2016 calendar school year.

But Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School Superintendent Victor Hayek said the discussion isn’t off the table for the following school year, and accommodations will be made for students who observe Diwali, or the “festival of lights.”

The request was made by residents during the public portion of an April 14 meeting of the school district’s board of education, Hayek said. No formal vote was taken by the board during the meeting because the matter wasn’t on the agenda and a calendar for the 2015-2016 has already been set, Hayek said.

Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, make a request to recognize Diwami in “view of (Hindus’) substantial population in the district.”

“The school district respects the religious rights of all of our families,” Hayek said in an email to NJ Advance Media. “There are 107 New Jersey Department of Education approved religious holidays. The school district does not penalize students for days out of school for religious reasons. We make accommodations and grant excused absences frequently.”

Diwali is included on the state Board of Education’s list of approved religious holidays, which entitles students to an excused absence if schools do not cancel classes on those days.

Traditionally celebrated over five days in October or November — this year the holiday falls on Nov. 11 and coincides with Veterans Day — Diwali symbolizes new beginnings and often involves families buying and wearing new clothes, decorating their homes, giving gifts, cooking, praying and visiting temple. Originally celebrated by Hindus, it has become a national festival that is enjoyed by most Indians regardless of faith,according to National Geographic.

The request was for Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District to officially recognize Diwali on its first day.

According to the 2013 American Community Survey for 2013, there were 8,252 Asian American in Bridgewater, which is 18.5 percent of the total population. Of that group, there are 4,005 Asian Indians, or 9.0 percent of the total population.

In Somerset County, there are 52,662 Asian Americans, which is 15.9 percent of the total population. Asian Indians make up 8.7 percent of the population (28,786).

Franklin Township has the most Asian Americans (14,102, or 22.3 percent) in the county, with 9,154 Asian Indians among that group. The Franklin School District has not made Diwali an official school holiday on its 2015-2016, according to Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for the school district.

Middlesex County has the highest number of Asian Americans in the state with 189,890 (22.9 percent of the total population). Asian Indians number 116,554 or 14.1 percent.

Only a handful of New Jersey’s roughly 600 school districts, including South Brunswick, Glen Rock and Passaic, recognize Diwali as an official holiday.

“We have a very diverse community and get similar requests for other religious holidays,” Hayek said. “The Board of Education takes each of these into consideration as we put our school calendar together. We will start working on the 2016-2017 calendar and this will be one item for discussion.”

On its 2014-2015 school calendar, Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District closed schools on Sept. 25, which was Rosh Hashanah. But a school official said schools were closed because there wouldn’t have been enough staff and students on hand to have a productive school day, not in official observance of the holiday.

In requesting the holiday, Zed said granting it would promote awareness about other religions and make the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District pupils well-nurtured, well-balanced, and enlightened citizens of tomorrow. He said it would also foster cohesion and unity in the community.

Besides Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and some Buddhists also celebrate Diwali. Hinduism is the oldest and third-largest religion in the world, with about one billion adherents. There are approximately three million Hindus in the United States.

Zed said in an email that he requested the school district make Diwali a holiday at the behest of some residents.