My first encounter with the experience of Jewish kids in the Ann Arbor Public Schools came before I had kids in the schools, and it was a shock. As a transplant from the northeast, I was used to the idea that even schools with fairly low numbers of Jewish kids still were closed, minimally, for the Jewish high holidays; and there were still 2, 3, or 4 Jewish kids in every class. As a young child, it made intuitive sense to me that school would start in September--of course, because that is when the Jewish holidays were. [In fact, the idea that the "New Year" would be in January made no sense to me at all.]
One day about 15 years ago, shortly before Chanukah, I was visiting a 3d or 4th grade classroom on the north side of Ann Arbor. I was setting up for my presentation in the back of the room, and I watched, fascinated, as the teacher called up "Jane," with her menorah (candelabra) and dreidel (spinning top), to explain the holiday of Chanukah. Although Jane was clearly prepared, she was also shy. The teacher tried to help her a little by asking Jane questions about the holiday, and then asked, "Can anyone else help Jane?" Nobody raised a hand. I was shocked. Was Jane the only Jewish child in the whole class? Coming home that night, I shared the story with my husband, who had grown up Jewish in mid-Michigan. He wasn't shocked at all. In fact, he had probably had that experience. But I--I was plagued by self-doubt. Could I? Should I? send my kids to school in a school system where they would be even more of a minority than I had been in my school? I wasn't sure.
Cut to many years later. My kids have never been the only Jewish kids in their classes, although they have sometimes been the most observant (which creates a different set of challenges). Ann Arbor schools are still somewhat segregated by class and race, and just as Muslim kids are not divided evenly among the schools, neither are Jewish kids. In some schools, there are quite a few Jewish kids, and in others, very few.
So--how has our experience, and the experience of the other Jewish families I know--been?
For the most part fine, but there have been a few glaring exceptions. The problem with glaring exceptions, as you know, is that they stick with you for a long, long time.
So--let's start with the fact that the Ann Arbor Public Schools have a religious holidays policy. You can read it here. Essentially, the policy addresses how to handle a religious holidays calendar, which has finally been "meshed" with the other calendars, and which labels holidays as one-star, two-star, and three-star. As you might suspect, Yom Kippur and the last day of Ramadan are labeled as three-star holidays, which means "most important." Good Friday? It's a two-star holiday. But guess which day the schools are closed on? If you guessed Good Friday, and not the last day of Ramadan, you would be right. I should note that the "stars" don't just denote observance importance. They also try to estimate how popular the holiday is as far as observance goes. For instance, the Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Passover are equally important from the point of view of Jewish observance. However, more Jews observe the Passover seder, and so. . . those first days of Passover get three stars, and the first days of Sukkot get two. On one level, that seems reasonable to me, although I think some of the star levels should be revisited. And I will say this: if any of the other school districts in the county have an articulated religious observance policy, I couldn't find it. So kudos to Ann Arbor for even having one.
Issues come up every year, and not just in December.
Just this week, I felt slightly queasy when I saw the Saline Schools twitter about kids working on wreaths. You might not think of wreaths as Christmas-y, but I do. Poinsettias and trees, too, for that matter.
I felt even queasier when I saw that kids from Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti were singing carols at a Christmas tree lighting in Ypsilanti.
Don't get me wrong--I am happy to help my neighbors put ornaments on their trees, I enjoy listening to other people sing carols or Handel's Messiah. But. But. But I don't want that in our public schools. That is where I want separation of church and state.
I approached my first December in the Ann Arbor schools with a lot of trepidation. I found truth in the phrase, "A best defense is a good offense," and I felt a HUGE amount of relief when I found that Ann Arbor Open (where my oldest was) had come up with a great solution to the "December dilemma." The school's Multicultural Festival--a full-scale extravaganza that involves every classroom studying a culture in depth, AND a community potluck, AND a fundraiser for the school library--was scheduled for the week before the December break. And guess what the net effect was? All of the kids' attention was on the Multicultural Festival, and (almost) none of it on the holidays. I highly recommend this approach (substitute something really engrossing, some project-based learning) as a way to deal with both Christmas and Chanukah. This year, the Ann Arbor Open Multicultural Festival is scheduled for Thursday, December 17th, 2009, 6-8 p.m. (There is a suggested donation that helps support the library, but it is NOT required.) Visitors are welcome to come eat and travel from classroom to classroom with a "passport." The Multicultural Festival? It is my favorite night of the school year.
Coming Soon: So how is that religious holidays policy working for you?