From left, OPRF students Madeleine Niewoehner, Eva Spangler, Zoe Klein, Ania Sacks and Tim Mellman, sit together for a photo on Monday, May 10, 2021, outside of Oak Park and River Forest High School. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Last September, Madeleine Niewoehner was in a bind. Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, fell on a Sunday, and 16-year-old Niewoehner sought to spend that day attending services with her family. But the weight of a hard math test hung over her. 

“I just don’t have time to try to study on top of also going to services all day long, having lunch with my family and dinner with my family,” recalled Niewoehner, a junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Niewoehner said her teacher planned to give the test the Thursday before Yom Kippur but decided to move it to Monday, so she and her classmates had more time to study. 

While Niewoehner was happy her teacher pushed the test back, she now faced another issue: the exam was now set for the day after the Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, includes day-long fasts, prayer and reflection, said Niewoehner. 

Since last fall, Niewoehner and other Jewish students at OPRF have shared with school officials that they often feel like they have to choose their school work over their faith. Now, the fight to have their holiday recognized has gained some traction, as the OPRF District 200 Board of Education sought to consider Yom Kippur as a non-attendance day in the 2022-23 school calendar.

At an April 22 meeting, board members discussed acknowledging the Jewish holiday on the school calendar is another step toward inclusivity. Board members unanimously voted against approving the 2022-23 school calendar and asked administrators to explore the possibility of including religious holidays like Yom Kippur. The school calendar for the 2021-22 school year has long been set in place.

The board is expected to reconvene May 13 with plans to vote on the 2022-23 school calendar. 

“I don’t want us to do things that are simply symbolic,” said Gina Harris, a board member, during the meeting. “I want things to be systemic and structural, and this is one of those ways that we can begin that process.” 

Harris said students shouldn’t miss out on a chance to qualify for attendance-based awards or scholarships because they chose to take a day off from school to celebrate their religious holiday. This is a “systemic, structural issue that we need to change,” she said. 

Outgoing board member Jackie Moore and board president Sara Dixon Spivy echoed Harris and added this is not the first conversation held on this issue. Growing up, Moore and Spivy said they went to schools that attracted a large Jewish community and honored Yom Kippur and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, alongside other religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. 

“I would appreciate being able to better reflect our student diversity in our calendar,” Spivy said. “Anything the board can do to help facilitate that process we are happy to do it, but we’ve been saying this for several years now. I am optimistic that we can make this a reality soon.” 

From left, OPRF students Madeleine Niewoehner, Eva Spangler, Zoe Klein, Ania Sacks and Tim Mellman, sit together for a photo on Monday, May 10, 2021, outside of Oak Park and River Forest High School. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

In an email to Wednesday Journal, Greg Johnson, the school’s incoming superintendent, said changing the 2021-22 school calendar to include the Jewish holidays may be unlikely. In order to claim another day as a non-attendance day, the school year would need to start earlier in August, he wrote. 

“Unfortunately, moving the calendar to an earlier start date simply isn’t possible due to our summer construction,” Johnson wrote. 

Communications director Karin Sullivan said the first day of the school year is contingent on the final exams schedule for the fall semester. Final exams for the fall semester are typically given before winter break, which makes the fall semester much shorter than the second semester. 

“That’s been one of the challenges with taking off Yom Kippur,” Sullivan said. 

Public schools across Illinois must have a minimum of 185 days on their calendars to make sure students go to school for 176 days, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Schools are also granted five emergency days, which must be made up by the end of the year.  

OPRF junior Tim Mellman, who submitted a written letter for public comment to the board, said he appreciated how the school officials listened to him and his fellow classmates and took their concerns seriously. 

“This entire effort has really proven the incredible importance of having student input in board decisions,” said Mellman, 17. He also hopes the board can show more support for students of other faiths and consider including their holidays in the future. “I think it would be really great if the board continued to make an effort to maintain student input in issues.” 

For Niewoehner and classmate Eva Spangler, the board’s decision felt bittersweet. The two said they were happy to see board members address their issues head on, but they also expressed their shared frustrations to other school administrators last October. In tandem with their civics class, the two said they even held a presentation for select faculty on the history of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah but felt their efforts were ignored.  

“What made me even more happy was how empathetic they were,” said Spangler, who is 17 and also a junior. “They weren’t just like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll fix this.’ 

“They seem to actually care, and they really did have an empathetic approach thinking about it and how it would be for us, which I’m really glad. But also it took a while to get there.” 

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