Hewlett-Woodmere’s consideration of including the Muslim holidays, Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, on the 2018-19 school district calendar generated passionate arguments from both sides of the issue.
Addressed through 2017, and the focus of two public meetings in January, advocates in favor of adding the holidays perceived the additions as a positive example of inclusion and acceptance. Opponents expressed concern about potential legal challenges the district could face, having the schools potentially closed for two more days, and it could lead to more religious groups requesting days off for observance.
At the Jan. 10 meeting, John Ross, the district’s lawyer, said he would feel comfortable defending in court a decision to include the holiday, however, at the Jan. 17 meeting the Board of Education decided to approve a version of the calendar without the Eid holidays, citing further conversations with its legal counsel that created an uncertainty about the holidays meeting a secular purpose.
The trustees also made a point to decry what some thought were bigoted statements made at the January meetings. “It is important to note that if similar statements were made inside the walls of the school buildings they would be immediately actionable as bullying and/or harassment,” Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino Jr. and Board President, wrote in a letter sent to district residents and the Herald printed. “It is essential that, as adults, we model the behavior we expect from our children. They are most certainly watching,” they added.
Shahnaz Mallik, who began the petition requesting the addition and grandmother of a student in the district, said she was disturbed by some of what she heard, particularly at the Jan. 10 meeting. “It was a horrifying and awful experience for many of us. I could not sleep that night,” she said. “I hope the school board of the prestigious Hewlett-Woodmere school district handles such situations fairly in the future.”
A portion of the comments also unsettled her daughter, Amara Mallik. She also sees this as a chance to share more about Islam. “Whenever I had the chance, I volunteered to speak about Eid in my daughter’s class in Franklin Early Childhood Center and at Ogden [Elementary School],” she said. “We contributed to the One World Celebration [at] FECC, and gave books and decorative items that represent Eid and Islam for Ogden’s holiday celebration. But we need to do more, be more involved and be active in the community to make our presence known.”
McInnes asked that the hateful statements be left with those who made them, saying they are not representative of the community, others agreed. “I think all too often, in too many circumstances, the actions of a very, very, very small portion of any particular group, whether it be back in the Navy and there was a drunk guy in uniform or being completely inappropriate, but he made everyone in that uniform look bad,” McInnes said on Jan. 17. “Please nobody in this room should take things that were said by even a portion of the 150 or 200 people who came to a meeting the other night and think that is a representation of the Hewlett-Woodmere public schools community.”
McInnes’ statement was met with applause. Lisa Miller of Woodmere opened her statement by saying she was heartened by some of the other speakers statements. “I don’t believe [any bigoted statements] represents the whole community, but I feel maybe a wound was opened that’s going to take a little bit of healing,” she said. “I think we all have to do our part… [Mallik and I] are part of a group called the Sisterhood of Shalom Salaam. We bring together groups of Jewish and Muslim women to learn about each other’s religion, to get to know each other and to connect as human being, and I’ve got to say I think that’s more of what we need here.”
Miller said that she believes ignorance is what leads to hatred. Tanvir Ahmad, president of the Islamic Center of Five Towns, located on Hamilton Avenue in Hewlett wants to squash that ignorance. “I encourage everyone here to visit our Islamic Center,” he said. “The board can deny or accept any proposal, but the bigotry expressed by some was very disheartening.”