Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Religious Holidays in Anchorage

You may have read in the Anchorage Daily News about a new policy regarding certain religious holidays and the scheduling of school activities. If not, a link to the article is here.

The new rules do not mean that school will be out on these new holiday inclusions, but that the Anchorage School District will avoid scheduling activities, like sporting events, on these days. The new list includes Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. They are added to a list which includes New Year's, Orthodox Christmas and Easter, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.

The new holidays may be unfamiliar to some:

Passover is a Jewish celebration, in the springtime, that commemorates the events in Egypt that led up to the Exodus. The name of the holiday comes specifically from the fact that the angel of death "passed over" the houses of the Israelites during the plague which killed the eldest sons of the Egyptians. Passover is a holiday of celebration of freedom and an expression of continued hope about the coming of the Messiah.

Rosh Hashanah is a fall Jewish celebration commemorating the New Year. It is a time to wish happiness and health to everyone you know.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, another autumn Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur is marked by a day (or more) of fasting and expressions of regret for wrong-doing in the previous year. It is a time to try to make amends with family and friends and to forge stronger bonds in relationships.

Eid al-Fitr is a late-autumn/early winter (usually) Muslim celebration marking the end of Ramadan. It is time of celebration to end the fasting, rejoicing in a renewed sense of spiritual accomplishment and thanking God for the help and strength of making it through Ramadan.

Eid al-Adha is a Muslim commemoration celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael. For Muslims, Ishmael, the son of Sarah's handmaiden Hagar, is a significant spiritual figure, believed to be a father of their faith. In Islamic tradition, Ishmael was the son Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice. Eid al-Adha celebrates Abraham's faith and God's intercession.

The recognition of these holidays by the Anchorage School District acknowledges the changing face of our city's religious population. Of course, not everyone in the city falls into the categories of the three Abrahamic faith traditions, but they are the most significant in terms of populations numbers.

There will still be people who may have other spiritual observances that will conflict with school activities and they will have decisions to make. The school district is not required to acknowledge any holidays according to religion, but does so to make things easier for the majority of students.

Is this the right thing to do? Some people argue that Christian students would not get the same treatment in a primarily Muslim or Jewish country. However, I believe that is a strong argument for why we should allow such practices here. Religious tolerance does not mean we have to say all spiritual practices are equal or that all roads lead up the same mountain. In the case of Christians, it can and should mean that we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick and make some allowances for other beliefs because it is what Jesus would have us do. When we do it for the least of these, we do it for Him.

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