On Oct. 18, Abigail Arjune went to school even though it was the Hindu holiday of Diwali. When she returned home that night, she did not have enough time to perform the rituals associated with the holiday and go to services at Shri Surya Narayan Mandir in Jamaica, Queens, she said.
To remedy this issue, Arjune, 16, sent the Central High School District Board of Education a petition at the end of October asking the board to recognize Diwali as a religious holiday on the school calendars. The petition had more than 200 signatures.
“Every other culture has their own observed holiday, and they are well-known to the nation,” she wrote in the petition. “With all these celebrations of all these cultures, Hindus do not have an observed holiday on the school calendar.”
Diwali is a five-day celebration commemorating the Hindu New Year. The main day of the festival falls on the third day, the darkest night of the Hindu lunar month. On that day, families gather for a prayer to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and have a feast, clean and decorate their house to let the gods in, and light diyas, oil lamps, to bring light to the darkest night of the month.
The ceremonies can take several hours, Arjune’s mother, Geeda, said, and because children have to go to school, there is not enough time for the family to get to services in Queens. “You know, I try to take the day off, but with the children, by the time you’re finished performing your ceremony and doing what you have to do, there’s no time to really go to church and do what you’re supposed to,” Geeda said. “Had they had the day off, we could have fully celebrated the holiday just like the rest of the cultures.”
Bill Heidenreich, the superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, said he shared the petition with the school board and showed the school board members attendance rates at the schools during Diwali from the past few years. He said that on an average day, attendance in the district is usually between 96 to 97 percent, and that did not change during Diwali.
“There was no drop in attendance whatsoever,” Heidenreich said.
Bill Stris, the president of the high school district’s Board of Education, said that each elementary school district would send Board of Education members to a joint-boards meeting on Jan. 17 at Central High School to discuss the issue further.
For Arjune, it is a matter of fairness for Hindus living in the district. “I’ve celebrated Diwali ever since I could remember, and I always wondered why people of other races, ethnicities and cultures have their observed holiday on the calendar and Hindus don’t,” she said. “And now I realize that this is my passion, being an activist is actually really interesting for me, so I will not stop requesting this matter until I get my voice heard.”