With bad feelings on both sides, Farmington school board reverses unpopular decision on Jewish holidays and agrees to consider Diwali again

With bad feelings on both sides, Farmington school board reverses unpopular decision on Jewish holidays and agrees to consider Diwali again

In a long and frequently tense meeting, Farmington’s school board Monday night reversed its controversial decision to eliminate the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays.

But the board still took more than an hour of complaints from residents who called its decision insensitive and high-handed, and others who insisted that it make Diwali a holiday.

A crowd of more than 200 packed the auditorium at the Irving Robbins Middle School, and a long line of speakers condemned the board for removing the Jewish holidays and refusing to close schools for Diwali as well. Some argued that the board ignored the community and others slammed its decision-making process.

“The decision to not support the Diwali holiday has deeply hurt me and my family,“ parent Richa Gupta said.

“Voting on an issue before hearing your constituents is innately undemocratic,” resident Justin Morse said.

But the criticism went both ways: In sometimes-quavering voices, several board members said they were hurt and disappointed by what they described as unfair accusations of bias and anti-Semitism by residents over the past three weeks.

“This board has been subject to horrible personal attacks and attempts to disparage our reputations,” board member Christine Arnold said. “I have never believed that our community would behave this way and I was so wrong.”

When a few members of the audience shouted “apologize” as Arnold spoke, Chair Elizabeth Fitzsimmons threatened to clear the auditorium. She repeatedly scolded the crowd for applauding speakers.

A police officer stood at the back of the room throughout the night, and three police cars idled in the parking lot.

Several speakers called on the board to do a better job of listening to the community, and blamed board members for the divisive atmosphere that’s prevailed since they voted Nov. 14 to open schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If that decision stood, it would have ended a 23-year practice of closing in observance of the holidays.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford had planned a press conference Monday to oppose that vote, but Fitzsimmons issued a statement in the morning predicting that the board would reverse itself at the Monday night meeting.

“As our communities become increasingly diverse, it’s more important than ever to embrace that growing diversity by enshrining values of respect and inclusion in our schools’ policies and practices,” federation President David Waren said Monday. “We believe the leadership of the Farmington public school system is committed to these values.”

Although pleased that the board restored Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Waren emphasized that the federation supports adding Diwali to the holiday schedule too.

“We have heard from dozens of faith and community leaders united in their concern that failure to include these holidays will have a significant impact on students and teachers in Farmington,” he said.

On Monday night, Fitzsimmons told parents that the board never intended to cause harm through its calendar vote last month.

“I want to express my heartfelt sorrow that our actions from Nov. 14 have caused portions of the community to feel hurt. For that I am sorry. This was a wholly unintended impact,” she said. “We have listened and we have heard you.”

Board member William Beckert and others based their initial votes on a desire to give students maximum time in class, particularly after academic achievement suffered because of the pandemic. But he added that he understands the criticism, adding “I do not believe I fully grasped the impact would have on a substantial part of our community ... I know I have to do better. I think all of us want to do better.”

The board Monday night restored Yom Kippur as a holiday in the 2023-24 calendar, and noted that neither Rosh Hashanah nor Diwali will fall on a school day that year.

More significantly, the board unanimously voted to suspend its long-term policy decision that cut the Jewish holidays in the future and also barred Diwali. Instead, Beckert’s policy committee will meet in January to establish a better process for deciding on Diwali, he and Fitzsimmons said.

Gupta said the board needs to use “common sense” in deciding on Diwali. When she and her family moved to Farmington 11 years ago, about 8 to 10 percent of the student body was Indian, she said. That figure is now 18 to 20 percent, she said.

“The Farmington board has failed to recognize the demographic shift,” she said. “Why are we even debating this?”

Avon, South Windsor, Rocky Hill and Newington are among the small group of Connecticut school systems that hold no classes on Diwali, a prominent festival day for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.