During the Iowa City Community School District’s school board meeting on April 13, 2021, the board voted unanimously to add two holidays to the 2021-2022 school year: September 16, the Jewish holy holiday Yom Kippur, and May 3, the Muslim holy holiday Eid al-Fitr.
“We got Thursday [September 16] off due to the joint efforts of the local Muslim community, the Jewish community and the Superintendent. Muslims and Jews had campaigned in the past to get some of our holy days off and the school district was thankfully receptive to that message,” Rabbi Ester Hugenholtz of the local Agudas Achim Congregation said. “Muslim-Jewish solidarity was crucial to this effort. We Jews got Yom Kippur off and Muslims got Eid off.”
In English, Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and is considered to be the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Yom Kippur focuses on personal growth, reflecting on the previous year, and drawing closer to God through acts of kindness, charity, introspection and prayer. Jews fast from food and water for 25 hours and many spend most of the day in synagogue in prayer. The fast is broken at sunset, often in celebration with friends and family.
“Yom Kippur is definitely the most ‘high-stakes’ of the Jewish holidays because of the fasting and all-day worship, so considering both its holiest status and the endurance aspect of it, it is important for our community to be able to focus entirely on that—and have the day off,” Rabbi Hugenholtz said.
However, though Thursday was a break from school, there was no announcement from City High explaining the reason for the day off. Alexei Hockenberg ‘22 is both culturally and religiously Jewish, and thinks there should be increased education regarding minority religions and ethnicities.
“I think that it should be mandatory to learn about other cultures. The whole ‘social studies’ is a branch of core curriculum, and it’s literally in the name: studying humans, the way they interact, and the way they socialize,” Hockenberg said. “I really think that there should be a lot of focus on the way other people live their lives. Other religions, other countries, step out of the sort of echo chamber that the world is most of the time.”
Before moving to Iowa City and coming to City High, Ana Laura Leyser ‘22 lived in Rio, Brazil and attended a private Jewish school.
“I would say [my former school] is very similar to a Catholic private school here. Every holiday was off, and every day before a holiday, we would celebrate between ourselves. There was a lot of Jewish education in general; we had four extra [Jewish studies] classes that were required,” Leyser explained.
At City High, years prior to the ICCSD’s calendar change, Leyser would attend school on holy holidays.
“I fasted the year before last at school. It was very hard, but I didn’t want to miss school because I had a lot of stuff going on,” Leyser said.
While the calendar change is progress for these two marginalized communities, many students feel there is still education to be done.
“It seemed like [a lot of people] were like, ‘We have Thursday off, I’m gonna spend the whole day [with] friends doing all of this stuff.’ For me it was like, ‘I have Thursday off but it’s a very important Thursday off. I’m going to fast and I’m going to think about all of these things.’ I feel like a lot of people didn’t realize what it was for,” Leyser said.
Hockenberg and Leyser are working to make an inclusive space for students who are interested in Judaism to gather at City High, whether they are Jewish or not. Hockenberg is the co-president of the Jewish Youth club, which provides a safe space for the Jewish community at City High to meet.
“I started Jewish Youth as a way to connect and advocate for Jews at school. I felt very often, just because I was one of few, if somebody asked about Thursday for example, I was the only one there [to explain it],” Hockenberg said. “Starting Jewish Youth is a way to bring together the Jewish community at school, a way to advocate for ourselves, and a way for anyone who’s interested to come in and have a place to learn about Judaism. It’s welcome to everyone.”
Members of the Jewish and Muslism community have expressed gratuity for the calendar changes.
“I am incredibly grateful to the ICCSD for doing this, both as a congregational rabbi and as a mom of three kids. Seeing Jewish representation highlights the importance of being in solidarity with each other. It allows us to be Jewish with pride and dignity,” Rabbi Hugenholtz said. “And I cannot wait to celebrate Eid with my Muslim siblings—so that they, on the same equal terms, feel validated and supported in their faith. This is our great hope for the world.”