A VISD error: Events slated to take place on Jewish high holidays

Vashon School District officials inadvertently scheduled significant public school events on two of the holiest days in the Jewish faith this fall, raising concern among Vashon’s small Jewish community and eliciting a pledge from the district that it won’t happen again.

The district quickly rescheduled one of the events last week. Vashon High School’s homecoming dance, scheduled to take place on Saturday, Oct. 8, which is Yom Kippur this year, was moved up one week and will now take place Oct. 1.

But the homecoming football game — a well-attended high school event that includes a half-time tradition involving hundreds of students — is still on Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Friday, Oct. 7, and ends at sundown the following day. And the McMurray Middle School open house, when parents get an opportunity to meet their children’s teachers, will be held tonight during Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown and ends at sundown tomorrow.

The mix-up was troubling to leaders in Vashon’s Jewish community, who note that the dates for these two holidays are identified on nearly every commercial calendar and are as sacred to Jews as Christmas and Easter are to Christians.

“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not obscure holidays,” said Matt Bergman, the father of a high school senior who won’t attend the homecoming football game because it falls on Yom Kippur. “I think it’s disrespectful and insensitive and shouldn’t happen.”

At the same time, he said, he was impressed by Superintendent Michael Soltman’s decision to change the date of the homecoming dance, a move Soltman made almost immediately after receiving a strongly worded letter from Bergman asking that the date of the dance be changed.

“I think the outcome really shows courage on the part of the district in that they admitted they made a mistake and fixed it,” Bergman said. “A lot of public officials could get very defensive. In this case, the district acknowledged it made a mistake and looked for a way to fix it.”

Others in the Jewish community said they hoped the incident will provide an opportunity to build more awareness on Vashon about the Jewish high holidays — an awareness that is strong on the East Coast but is often missing in the Northwest, where the Jewish population is much smaller.

“For me personally, this is a teachable moment,” said Louise Olsen, president of the Havurat Ee Shalom, a Jewish congregation on Vashon, and a former teacher at Vashon High School.

She said she talked to VHS principal Susan Hanson, McMurray principal Greg Allison  and some Jewish teachers at the two schools about the mistakes. She also said she promised to give the school district a calendar that lists the dates for the Jewish high holidays over the next five years — something she discovered other Jewish organizations do in other parts of the country.

“It’s important to address this in a sensitive, appropriate, respectful way,” she said. “The message to me is that it wasn’t considered. And why? It could be a real healing thing.”

But Olsen and others are concerned about the impact the last-minute change in the date of the homecoming dance is having on students, especially those who are organizing the event.

“Students need to be supported and valued,” she said. “They put a lot of time and effort into their homecoming plans, and they do a beautiful job.”

Indeed, the students planning the event say they’re now scrambling as a result of the decision. ASB co-presidents Julie Wilson and Carly Sue Anderson officially learned on Friday that the dance would be Oct. 1 rather than Oct. 8, giving them only eight days to recreate an event scheduled to take place at the Vashon Golf & Swim Club.

“We pretty much have had to start over from scratch,” said Anderson, noting that the venue — as of Friday — was still up in the air. Chaperones will have to be lined up again, she added, as does the deputy sheriff who attends.

“It’s unfortunate the problem was brought up so late,” Wilson said, adding that the date was set by the administration, not the student body.

In an interview, Wilson, Anderson and one other student, Gianna Andrews, co-vice president of ASB, said they felt particularly frustrated that a decision was made without their input. The three girls went online and researched the issue, discovering Vashon is not the first school to make such a mistake. Western Michigan University President John Dunn earlier this month apologized for scheduling Homecoming on Yom Kippur but did not reschedule the event, they noted.

The ASB executive council also organized a meeting with Hanson and assistant principal Stephanie Spencer, inviting a Jewish student to attend. At that meeting, the girls said, they learned that because Yom Kippur technically ends at sundown, the dance would not necessarily create a conflict for Jewish students. The football game, Jewish students told them, is really the issue, but because of complex scheduling procedures with the Nisqually League, that date couldn’t be changed, the girls said.

“The student body has been good,” Anderson added. “We know it’s not the Jewish students’ fault. … I think the reason students feel frustrated is that it was just dropped on everyone.”

Sarah Kai Schwarz, a Jewish student active in the Havurat and co-editor of The Riptide, the high school newspaper, said she, too, was disappointed the decision was made to change the date. “It’s just causing a lot of stress for the students who are organizing it,” she said.

But Bergman said it’s a misunderstanding of the Jewish faith to believe that Yom Kippur suddenly ends at sundown. Many Jews, he said, fast during the 24-hour period, then break the fast with a celebratory dinner. He compared the situation his family would have found itself in to another family racing through Christmas dinner so that a child could head to a school function.

“We could cut short and truncate this tradition,” he said. “But it’s pretty important family time. And just because technically the holiday is over at sundown doesn’t mean the observation is over.”

Andrew Schwarz, Sarah Kai’s father and an active member of the Havurat, said he feels sympathy for the students who are suddenly shouldering the work of rescheduling the dance.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said.

But he agreed that Yom Kippur — a solemn day of prayer and fasting — shouldn’t be capped by the high school’s homecoming dance. And like Bergman, he believes the mistake was one of considerable magnitude and an issue that should not be taken lightly.

“Plain and simple, I hope the mess of it is enough to convince the administration to be a little more careful.  … I hope something’s learned from it. I hope the mistake isn’t made again,” he said.


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