Friday, October 21, 2011

Should Religious School be Cancelled on Halloween?

This year October 31st, a/k/a Halloween, falls on a Monday.

This poses a unique challenge for religious schools. Unlike Thanksgiving or New Year's Day, Halloween is not a national holiday, and secular schools do not close. Yet, practically speaking, for many children in the United States, the afternoon of the 31st is meant for trick-or-treating - exactly the time-slot when religious school is in session. And when I say "many," I think back to the last time that Halloween fell on a day when our school was in session.  Out of 75 students, exactly six showed up. One kid brought his mom, and I overheard him telling her, "You see, I TOLD you I would be the only fifth grader here!"

So this leaves religious school principals in a complicated position. On the one hand, it is hard to rationalize closing school for a non-Jewish holiday (I'll say here, parenthetically, that although some Jewish schools and teshuvot take a strong stance against Jews participating in any non-Jewish celebrations, I find unconvincing the arguments that Halloween is a "Christian" or "pagan" celebration.  True, it has pagan roots, but so do many Jewish holidays and rituals.  There are indeed Celtic neopagans celebrating Samhain on October 31, but that's not really the issue here.  And, we aren't talking about cancelling school on November 1, "All Saint's Day," but on "All Hallow's Eve," the night before; Halloween can be confusing and problematic for Christians too).

On the other hand, how do we ignore the reality that many of the kids will skip school, and that this will impact the experience of the ones who do attend?  Do we take a public stance on whether or not it is okay for kids who do attend - and faculty - to come in costume? 

So what to do?  I know of several schools that close for the day and instead run an in-service for their faculty.  This is a sensible response, and consistent with how some schools handle other holidays, such as Veteran's Day or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Other schools allow for, or even informally encourage, early dismissal - a sort of compromise approach.

Still others offer special programming on the day, meant to entice students to view school as both a worthwhile alternative to trick-or-treating and to feel rewarded for their attendance.  One school I know offered a program on demons, ghosts and witchcraft in Judaism; another ran "Purim in October." 

We are in the fortunate position at Congregation Emanu-El of running a one-day a week school that offers classes on Sundays as well as weekday afternoons. We have a general policy of encouraging students who are unable to attend on their usual day of school to attend on the other day.  In fact, we've had students who regularly alternate between Sunday and weekday attendance, including children of divorced parents who have alternate custody over weekends and kids who change their day of school with the change in sports seasons. This year, we will suggest that parents whose children might miss school on the 31st should send their children on the 30th instead.  I'll let you know in the comments section how this goes.

This is, of course, just the first year in a new cycle of dealing with the "October Dilemma."  In 2012 and 2013, when Halloween falls on a Wednesday and Thursday, it will conflict with the schedules of many religious schools.  Then, in 2014, we'll turn this problem over to the clergy; they'll have to figure out how to handle attendance at All Hallow's Eve of Shabbat.


Melissa said...

As I spend more time in the field I tend to embrace the secular holiday in a way that helps students (of all ages) view/celebrate/participate through a Jewish Lens. We had declining attendance year after year due to the Super Bowl - so I invited everyone to wear their favorite jersey and then led a special Assembly/Tefillah that highlighted famous Jewish athletes and acknowledged the blessing of a body that can move in miraculous ways. We shouldn’t compete – we should contextualize! Humble opinion!

Sara Shapiro-Plevan said...

Saul, thanks for sharing this. A few years ago, I contributed something to a conversation on MixedMultitudes, and I'm sharing it here. I originally (long before I wrote this, and not mentioned in this piece) shared the perspective of the traditional rabbi represented here, but the more deeply connected I feel with the reality of our learners and their families, and the need to root our choices in what is meaningful and relevant to them, I can't help but think that we make a mistake in not choosing this as an opportunity to frame it in some kind of Jewish perspective. Not that we would teach Halloween, but that we would frame the experience in Jewishly resonant themes and texts, and that there is what to learn from this below the surface.

Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

Two more great responses that I've learned about for this coming Monday: One school will be studying the value of "hachnasat orchim" ("hospitality" or "welcoming guests"); another, taking advantage of the fact that this week's Torah portion includes the story of Noah's ark, is having the staff dress as animals.

Sara Shapiro-Plevan said...

Was browsing and found this piece. Apparently we're not the only people who struggle with Halloween. Interesting complement to your words!!

Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

10/31 Update: We had a total of 16 kids join us for school today; about ten more took advantage of the Sunday option. So that's about 1/3 of the total Monday population that ended up attending.

We did get a few excellent responses from parents who didn't want to send their kids today, but also had conflicts for Sunday morning. My favorite: "[My husband] is taking [our daughter] to her first Giants game that day. For [him], watching and participating in sports is a sort of religious experience, if that counts, he hopes to pass on to [our daughters]."