Glen Rock residents seek Diwali observance at district schools

112814-gz-diwaliMembers of the borough’s Indian community have asked the Glen Rock school district to formally observe Diwali. Above, youngsters perform a dance number at the Glen Rock Indian community’s Diwali celebration last month.

Members of Glen Rock’s Indian population have asked district officials to designate the observance of Diwali as a formal school holiday next year.

The request to recognize the Hindu celebration of the victory of good over evil – also described as the Festival of Lights – was voiced by a resident at the Nov. 10 Board of Education meeting, and supported by trustee Sanjiv Ohri.

The appeal included the closure of schools for a day.

While no decision emerged from the session, board president Sheldon Hirschberg called the discussion welcome and productive, saying it was “the beginning, not the end” of the dialogue.

“We’ve discussed this before, but it is something we need to know more about,” he said.

Scheduled for discussion under “new business” toward the end of the meeting agenda, that discourse was preceded by public comment from Sonal Thohan, who was among a group of residents at the meeting in connection with the request.

The five-year resident told trustees that Diwali begins the Hindu New Year, “So in a nutshell, you can think of it as Christmas, Hannukah and Rosh Hashana all combined into one, so it’s a big deal for us,” she said.

“We would like to have the student body learn more about the festival, what it symbolizes – good over evil, light over darkness – there are a lot of good messages that the festival symbolizes” relative to the district’s recent emphasis on respect, diversity and inclusion, she said. “I think it would be a great next step for this town to take.”

In the new business discussion, Ohri said, “I think being part of a global community is the goal that I have. How do you bring people together, how do you raise awareness? No one knew about Diwali until a couple of years ago, but there has been an Indian community living in this town for the past 25 or 30 years, which I was amazed to find.”

He said, “It will help the kids and boost their morale to have it understood that this is one of our community’s most critical holidays,” adding that he believed there would be general acceptance as well.

“There are so many other (religious) holidays, and this is one of the most significant for us. That’s why the community has reached out to me, and I’m bringing their request and views (to the board),” he said.

Asked by trustee Elizabeth Carr approximately how many district students observe Diwali, Ohri did not offer a number, but observed the recent growth of the Indian community in the borough. Thohan had estimated earlier that some 90 percent of that constituency has moved to the borough over the past two years.

“This discussion is taking place in other districts as well, we are not the first one,” Ohri said. “Everyone is waiting and the question is how long can you wait? Or can we be the light- house district and make this decision?”

Trustee Randi Blumberg asked if the celebration’s formal aspects warrant closing the school system.

“Is it a day when people don’t work, is it a religious law or custom that you don’t participate in daily activities? Would people keep their children home that day whether the schools are closed or not?” she inquired.

Ohri said the “Festival of Lights” celebration around the holiday lasts almost 10 days “and if you’re really orthodox you do certain things.” But Diwali – which falls on “no moon/new moon” day on the Hindu calendar in October or November – “is the most significant day, when you go to the temple and visit friends and families.

“It’s hard to do that during school, but if you take your kids out, you have to explain why,” Ohri said. “That creates an issue for the kids, who wonder why (classmates) don’t know about their holidays.”

Addressing the scheduling process, Superintendent Paula Valenti said next term’s calendar will be prepared within the next several months.

“We don’t just draft one sample calendar, but usually two or three. Then we meet with constituencies – staff, union and the board – and then adopt a final version for the following year,” she said.

“Knowing this is an area of concern” related to next year’s calendar, “I will certainly take it under consideration in the preparation of the draft calendars that are put forth to the various constituents that have input,” Valenti said.