San Francisco High School Postpones Dance for Yom Kippur

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    A San Francisco high school postponed a dance scheduled for Friday night because of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews across the globe - but angered some students by waiting until the last minute to do so. Stephanie Chuang reports. (Published Friday, Sept. 13, 2013)

    A San Francisco high school postponed a dance scheduled for Friday night because of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews across the globe - but angered some students by waiting until the last minute to do so.

    The decision by Lowell High School leaders satisfied many Jewish parents and students who thought it was insensitive to schedule a dance on their significant holiday - which begins at sundown on Friday.

    But the move has also angered many who planned the dance, who now fear they won’t get as many students to attend when it’s rescheduled for next Friday, because it comes the night before a big college entrance exam. The abrupt shift also raises an interesting question about whether public schools should bend to religion.

    “We’re just curious how a public institution can allow a religious event to somehow stop a non-mandatory school event?” asked Jessica Weiss, 17, the student body events coordinator at Lowell who worked on the dance for four months and was given a day's notice of its postponement. “Students don’t have to go to this dance.”

    And Weiss – whose father is Jewish – pointed out what she thought was a bit of hypocrisy: If the school dance can’t be held on the eve of Yom Kippur, why can a Lowell soccer game be held on Saturday, which is also on the holiday.

    She said many seniors told her that they can’t attend the Sept. 20 dance because there is an ACT college entrance exam the next day and they need to study. The whole point of this dance is to raise about $3,000 for the senior class, she said, and if a large group of students can’t make it, then her efforts have been in vain.

    But, to Lowell principal Andrew Ishibashi, the answer is simple. He said he made the mistake last year of scheduling the dance in mid-September, not realizing it was Yom Kippur. When it came to his attention – he declined to say how that happened – he recognized what he had done. Backed by the district, he said he wanted to correct it by moving the dance by one week. He said there are many ACT exams to take throughout the year, and he wanted to accommodate his Jewish student population.

    For many Jews, Yom Kippur is the one holiday of the year they may celebrate; it’s like celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve for Christians who may not observe other traditions throughout the year. Yom Kippur is a somber holiday that includes fasting and abstaining from the rush of secular life to atone for the year's sins.

     “We need to be sensitive to people of all religions,” Ishibashi said.

    This issue raises its head almost every year in various cities and schools throughout the country.

    While some public schools in Los Angeles and New York with big Jewish populations cancel class, or at least don’t schedule important tests on major Jewish holidays, there are many meetings, events, parties and other secular happenings that are scheduled for this time of year that pose conflicts for Jews.

    Oakland School for the Arts, for example, scheduled a camping retreat this weekend, much to the dismay of the Jewish families who attend.

    And it's not just students. The most famous Yom Kippur story in this country is when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, despite intense pressure to play.

    While Jews know they are living in a secular world, many still feel that it’s insensitive for others not to recognize this important holiday.

    Elka Looks, spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, said she appreciates Lowell’s decision and their “responsiveness to parents’ concerns.”

    Her agency was well aware of the issue; in fact, the JCRC helped counsel the Jewish parents on how to approach the school. She also said her group hands out a Jewish calendar each year so that these conflicts can be minimized.

    As for his student’s point about the prickly tension between church-and-state, Ishibashi answered: “Our students are highly intelligent, and we teach them to look at both sides. But students usually see their own picture. I try to look at the big picture.”

    NBC Bay Area's Erin Murphy and Stephanie Chuang contributed to this report.