Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time

Francis Bilak and her extended family are taking a cruise this week, but to do so, Bilak’s son, Michael, is missing a week of preschool at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.

Hillel, like two-dozen other Orthodox schools in Los Angeles, doesn’t have the last two weeks in December off. Instead, yeshiva day schools take their winter break during the last week of January — the end of the first semester. Families like the Bilak’s have to adjust their schedule to a calendar that is a beat or two off from the rest of the world’s rhythm.

The current schedule was adopted by Orthodox schools in the last two decades, when the Orthodox community made a collective decision to follow a halachic ruling by the great contemporary sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, according to Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School in Valley Village and president of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Yeshiva Principal’s Council.

Feinstein ruled that Jewish schools must be open on Dec. 25 to avoid giving any impression of Jews observing Christmas. He said that it was not appropriate for Jewish schools to be closed on Christian holidays, regardless of their status as national or legal holidays. Most schools offer a two-day Chanukah break, and some of them close for New Year’s Day (this year the two calendars coincide).

Although Feinstein’s work was published in 1956, the Los Angeles Orthodox community did not institute the policy until the 1980s, perhaps because the community was not as large, observant and as unified as it is now, Stulberger explained.

“As a community, it was time to make a stand,” Stulberger said.

Ruthie Gluck, whose daughter is in nursery school at Hillel, agreed with that reasoning.

“Children always have a happy, positive feeling associated with breaks from school, and I don’t think Jewish children should connect that feeling with Christmas,” she said.

While many Orthodox parents don’t see any threat or problem with having Christmas off, they still must adjust to the school calendar. For some, the schedule is a nuisance, disrupting family vacation plans. On the other hand, some couples enjoy the opportunity to drop the children off at school and spend a day off together.

Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, is happy to take advantage of the late-January break, when popular vacation spots and local attractions are less crowded and sometimes less expensive than during the holiday season.

Many decry the fact that while the school is technically in session Dec. 25 (or this year Dec. 26), the day is often wasted, because non-Jewish teachers and support staff are given the day off. Some schools have special programs on that day, but that is little consolation for day school parents who suspect their kids have too many days off.

While Los Angeles public schools require 180 days of instruction, Jewish day schools — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — tend to have fewer school days. Day schools aim to provide between 175 and 180 days of instruction, but often don’t hit that mark, according to Gil Graf, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

This year, for example, Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school, has 162 days of instruction, while students at the Reform Brawermen Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple attend school for 164.5 days. Yeshivat Yavneh, an Orthodox day school, has 170.5 days of classes, plus Sundays for boys in Grades 5 to 8.

This year was particularly hard on the calendar as all the High Holidays fell in the middle of the week, and some schools had as few as five days of classes during October.

Even so, Graff pointed out, school days at most Jewish schools are longer than at public or secular private schools, so students might be getting more hours in the classroom. A sixth-grader in day school, for instance, has anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour longer of school daily than a sixth-grader in public school. While most Jewish schools let out early on Fridays, most public schools have weekly or biweekly early dismissals for staff development.

Still, day school parents often complain that their children seem to be home too much — for parent teacher conferences, for teacher training days — given the workload students are expected to master and the tuition parents pay.

Another change in the Orthodox school calendar in the last two decades has been giving all of Sukkot off, resulting in 10 to 12 days of vacation in early fall.

“The Jewish community in Los Angeles used to have fewer families who built sukkot at home,” Stulberger explained, “so the schools remained open to give the children the opportunity to partake of the mitzvahs of Sukkot, such as benching lulav and eating meals in the sukkah. Now that so many families have sukkot at home, chol hamoed [the intermediate days of the holiday] is a time for families to enjoy the holiday together at home.”

Most non-Orthodox day schools are in session during Sukkot. Pressman Academy has school during Sukkot but refrains from assigning homework during that time, said Rabbi Mitchell Malkus, Pressman educational director.

Wilshire Boulevard also has school throughout Sukkot, even though most families build their own sukkahs at home.

“Reform Jewish education is now much more of an extension of home observance,” said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, head of Judaic studies at Wilshire Boulevard,” rather than a replacement of it.”