October 23, 2011
Ashwin Krushna Ekadashi , Kaliyug Varsha 5113
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ, USA:
On Wednesday, the district will become only the second in the state to close for the Hindu celebration of Diwali.
“It says to all of the communities that we recognize you and we value you,” said Gary McCartney, South Brunswick’s school superintendent.
Of the approximately 9,100 students in the township’s 12 schools, McCartney said, about one-third are of Indian descent and many are of the Hindu faith.
Passaic is the only other district in the state that closes school for Diwali, the festival of lights.
“It is a very important Hindu holiday,” South Brunswick school board member Deven Patel said. Born in India, he was elected in April, months after board members had set the school calendar.
However, Patel said, he and community members spent two years asking board officials to consider the holidays because of the township’s large Indian-American population.
Patel and school board president Stephen Parker said they haven’t heard a single negative comment about the school closing for the holiday.
McCartney said he hasn’t heard any criticism in town, but he has received a few negative e-mails from people outside of New Jersey.
“I’m respectful of the fact that there are people with different opinions. If somebody sends me a nasty e-mail, I usually read it before I delete it,” McCartney said.
News of South Brunswick closing schools for Diwali raced through the Hindu community. Last December, shortly after the school board worked out the calendar, Rajan Zed, president of the four-year-old Universal Society of Hinduism based in Nevada, issued a statement applauding the board.
“The Hindu population is very happy with New Jersey,” Zed said when contacted last week. Hindus have pushed for similar recognition in other states, including California, without success.
Religion professors at several universities said they have never heard of a school district closing for Diwali.
“I don’t know of any other school that’s doing that,” said Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. Eck tracks Hindu and Muslim populations and activities across the country, as well as directing Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which explores the religious diversity of the United States.
“We did mapping of religious temples in New Jersey,” Eck said. “New Jersey is an epicenter for Hindu activity.”
About 41,000 people live in the 41-square-mile suburb of South Brunswick, which straddles Route 1.
The 2010 Census counted 104,705 residents of Indian descent in Middlesex County, ranking it third among U.S. counties for that population behind Queens, N.Y., and Santa Clara, Calif.
South Brunswick had 11,040 Indian-American residents in 2010, the Census reported, the fourth-largest in the state behind Edison’s 28,286, Jersey City’s 27,111 and Woodbridge’s 15,827.
“This is really a reflection of the demographics. Schools don’t close to celebrate holidays,” said Michael Yaple, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. Having classes on these days, Yaple says, results in a big groups of students missing class and having to make up work.
This year, the state Department of Education listed more than 130 religious holidays for which children are excused from school, though many of those days are during the summer or on weekends.
“Ten years ago, that list might have been half as long,” Yaple said.
The dates of some holidays change each year, and some fall outside regular school sessions, McCartney said. South Brunswick school officials work with local clergy to prepare their calendar, considering the holidays while scheduling at least 180 school days. This year, South Brunswick’s calendar includes 182 days.
Board member Patel said the top priority is education, but he also wants a “cultural openness so that we can celebrate everybody.”
He said Indian-American residents in the neighboring towns of North Brunswick and Plainsboro have sought his advice about getting the holidays onto their school calendars.