June 20, 2024
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Common Sense Calendars: The Next Chapter

Recent surveys have shown that almost half of employers now treat MLK day as a vacation day. This number has grown significantly in recent years and will likely continue to grow in the future. With this in mind, many of our yeshiva day school parents have often found the timing of yeshiva break to be a source of incredible frustration. Facing a perennial depletion of vacation days because of yamim tovim, every day off is precious. To be given a day off on the third Monday of January and then start yeshiva break three days later poses a hardship for those families where both parents work in the secular world.

Until recently, yeshiva winter break was determined by aiming to have as close to an equal number of school days before and after break as possible. This was the rationale for beginning winter break on the third Thursday in January every year.

Unfortunately for many parents, more often than not, this meant that yeshiva break started right after MLK day, forcing parents to take off an additional day rather than allowing them to incorporate a school vacation day into their work vacation schedule.

Just over two years ago I wrote an article in this paper arguing for a change to this policy for a number of reasons, foremost among them that calendars should try to be sensitive to, and align with, parent schedules. Our attempt at that time to make this calendar change was unsuccessful.

I am pleased to announce that a number of yeshiva day school administrators made another push in recent months, and this time we were successful. The Jewish Education Project (formerly known as the BJE), which posts recommended academic calendars on its website, allowed us to hold another vote and we convinced enough schools to make this change. Effective in the 2022/23 school year and going forward, winter break will start on the Thursday before MLK day.

I see this as a very positive step, better aligning the schedules of many working parents with our day school calendar. Here are some thoughts on this calendar change.

Why is this change effective in 2022/23 and not next year?

The JEP publishes school calendars a few years in advance. The 2021/22 calendar has been public for at least a year. People have made plans based on this proposed calendar, whether for smachot or other purposes. Once the calendar is published it is very hard to change it and unfair to those who have made plans based on it.

Why did this change not happen earlier?

I honestly don’t know. The last time I pushed this agenda there was a school-wide vote to keep the vacation as is. This time we lobbied more aggressively. Erik Kessler, the executive director at Moriah, and I sent emails and made numerous calls to school leaders, explaining to them how this change would benefit their parents. The vast majority of school administrators we spoke to agreed with us.

This sounds like a great change. Why would someone oppose it?

When I first wrote my article on this topic I received an overwhelming number of responses. The vast majority of these responses were positive, expressing frustration over what was then the current policy. There were a handful of negative responses, however. The general concern of these individuals was that vacationing over a holiday weekend may be more expensive and out of reach for some families.

We have had to navigate family vacations during some of the busiest travel times, and have learned how to best travel during these times.

-Make plans far in advance. Flights and hotels are very expensive when booked right before a busy vacation time.

-Take advantage of the unique contours of yeshiva break so that your travel patterns differ from everyone else. Travel on Wednesday night, long before the long weekend when rates are still cheap. Travel on Sunday will also be cheaper, as it is too late for those looking to leave for a long weekend, and too early for those looking to return. In either case you avoid the big crowds.

-Don’t plan on visiting a tourist trap on MLK day when those venues are packed. Reserve that day for other plans. Alternatively, many museums and other venues are free on MLK day.

-I inquired with a travel agent who confirmed that there is not a substantial difference between travel the week of MLK day and travel on the following week.

If the goal is to align parent-child vacation times, why don’t you push for changing vacation back to the end of December? Wouldn’t this be more convenient for many working families?

The decision to have winter break overlap with MLK day was one that is supported as preferable to the prior schedule by an overwhelming majority of parents. As such, it seemed like an obvious choice. The question of whether to have vacation during yeshiva break or at the end of December is far more complex, with many families, often depending on the nature of their profession, on either side of this equation.

How should we make MLK day a meaningful day for our family?

Regardless of whether our children are in school or at home on MLK day, we should find ways to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on the values he stood for. Education has always been a partnership between school and home. Schools will continue to teach the values of equality, human rights and the fight against racism of any type. Families at home will have the opportunity to find ways on MLK day itself to celebrate the day. One can find many programs every year on MLK day, whether community parades, lectures or community public service days. With children home on this day, Orthodox families will now have the opportunity to participate in these days and represent our community.

Change across a broad community is often difficult to achieve. There are always competing factors that vie for primary consideration. This calendar decision represents a long overdue acknowledgement of the struggle day school parents often face as they work to balance their children’s schedules with their own. It is our obligation, as school administrators, to give serious weight to such parental needs when possible. It has been a complicated process, but I believe that this change is a very positive step in the right direction.

Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at The Moriah School in Englewood, New Jersey.

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