At a recent board meeting, the Syosset School District made a pioneering decision in the push toward greater acceptance of diverse cultures and religions. On Monday, Oct. 18, it was unanimously decided that Syosset will recognize certain sacred festivals celebrated by those of both the Hindu and Muslim faiths.
“This is so important for students who have maybe felt like they didn’t always belong, and now they can celebrate these important festivals without the rigors of school,” said Joshua Lafazan, member of the Syosset school board. “It signals that regardless of skin color, of religion, of ethnicity or background, Syosset is a place where you belong.”
Petitions regarding the matter had been in circulation for almost a month, garnering support from hundreds of community members. This decision, which will go into effect for the 2017-18 school year, recognizes Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, as well as two Muslim holy days, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as official school holidays.
“The Hindu members of the community would always talk about how great it would be to get a day off, but nothing would ever be accomplished,” said Niketa Bhatia, Woodbury resident and leader of the movement for district-wide Diwali recognition. “One day I just said, ‘Let’s do it,’ not really knowing where it would go, but here we are today.”
After board discussion, it was decided that on the three separate days these holidays fall on, students will be granted the day off for an opportunity to celebrate. The announcement was met with both applause and excited shock.
“Two words: pure elation,” said Lafazan in his description of the atmosphere within the meeting at South Woods Middle School. “It was just a magnetic feeling, and it was because of the culmination of hard work on the behalf of the people petitioning, and people on the board. Everyone left there with a smile on their face and good feeling in their heart.”
This landmark decision marks Syosset as the first district in New York state to make Diwali a recognized school holiday, and is expected to affect not only the neighborhood at hand, but also surrounding communities with sizable Hindu and Muslim populations. Bhatia is already beginning to receive calls asking for her help to initiate similar movements in other neighborhoods. She intends to assist motivated community leaders in beginning the petition process and bringing the issue to the attention of school districts.
Dr. Michael Cohen, president of the Syosset Board of Education, is proud of the tremendous unity and cooperation that was evident at the meeting. He hopes that the Syosset School District will continue to set the example when it comes to highlighting the importance of diversity and understanding amongst diverse cultures.
“It was definitely the highlight of my 12 years on the board,” said Cohen. “The decision made so much sense to everyone there, and it will certainly be part of the legacy of this great school board. Emotionally and culturally, this is a district where people have gotten along wonderfully for many years, and it is sure to continue.”