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May 09, 2022

Hindu priest urges schools in New Jersey to observe Diwali as more districts add holiday

Students in the state who stay home to celebrate the festival of lights are currently eligible for up to five excused absences

As more than 20 New Jersey school districts move to observe a Hindu holiday in the upcoming academic year, efforts by religious leaders could expand recognition throughout the state. 

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hindiusm, wrote a letter urging New Jersey state officials to adopt Diwali as an official holiday in all of its schools in order to "recognize the intersection of spirituality and education." He said that recognizing the holiday would enable students to stay home and celebrate with their families. 

Currently, students who choose to stay home on Diwali are able to have their absence excused for religious purposes at any school in the state. Still, those who make the decision to observe the holiday are missing out on class time. Zed wrote that holidays of many other major religions are observed in schools to allow students to practice their faith and celebrate with loved ones. 

"Closing schools on Diwali would ensure that and would also display how respectful and accommodating New Jersey schools were to their faith," Zed told the Burlington County Times.

Though 23 school districts will have off on Monday, Oct. 24, several others will have short sessions with an early dismissal in order to allow Hindu students to observe the holiday without altering the academic calendar. One of the school districts Zed listed — Central Bucks — is actually in Pennsylvania. 

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and members of other faiths in India and South Asia. Many Hindus recognize the holiday as a celebration of the return of Rama, the lord of virtue, from exile. Rama is meant to be a symbol of righteousness. 

The festival lasts for five days, though it is commonly observed on the darkest day of the month, according to the lunar calendar. This year, that day is Oct. 24. There are a range of ways that practitioners of different faiths celebrate Diwali, though they all agree that the harvest festival is an expansive celebration of the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.

For the duration of the festival, those within the faith decorate their homes with lights and colorful flowers and prepare large feasts. Families are meant to bond together and share quality time with loved ones as well as with their communities. 

"Holiday on Diwali in New Jersey schools would be a step in the positive direction in view of the reported presence of a substantial number of Hindu students at schools around the state, as it is important to meet the religious and spiritual needs of Hindu pupils," Zed wrote, adding that "no one should be penalized for practicing their religion." 

The New Jersey Board of Education provides excused absences for Hindus celebrating nearly 20 holidays throughout the year. Those who return to school with a note indicating a religious observance for those holidays are protected from being penalized academically or otherwise. 

Students in New Jersey are able to receive excused absences for the full five days of Diwali, from Oct. 22 through Oct. 26 this upcoming school year. 

New Jersey's list of holidays permitting excused absences was passed by the Board of Education on Wednesday. Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state's Education Department, told WHYY that the decision to close for additional holidays is at the discretion of the local school district. 

Statewide observance of Diwali is popular among the Hindu community in New Jersey. The Hindu American Foundation provides educational resources for students, faculty and other supporters to use in their advocacy for the issue. These materials include an explanation of the lunar calendar, a breakdown of the celebrations on each day of the festival and traditional festivities. 

The Philadelphia School District does not currently observe Diwali as an official school holiday. Students who return to school after a religious holiday can submit a letter from a parent or guardian and have their absence excused. 

Zed has previously advocated for both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia schools to close for Diwali, noting in 2017 that the eighth largest school district in the country should observe the holiday in honor of its Hindu students. 

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District became the first in Pennsylvania to recognize Diwali in 2017. The following year, a petition from a student at Council Rock High School in Bucks County led to the Council Rock School District observing the holiday, as well. 

Additional efforts to expand recognition of holidays like the Lunar New Year and Juneteenth in schools have proven successful in many parts of the country.