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Push to make Diwali a NYC public school holiday is starting to see some light

November 5, 2021 Christopher Alvarez, Chalkbeat New York
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Neeta Bhasin was looking forward to celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, earlier this month. But for her, the best Diwali gift of all would be for the New York City public school system to declare the day a holiday.

“It would be a great blessing,” said Bhasin, 63, the founder of Diwali at Times Square, a pre-holiday festival that took place this past weekend at the Crossroads of the World.

Bhasin, a Manhattan resident with grandchildren in the public school system, is among more than 330,000 South Asians and Indo-Caribbeans in the city, many of whom have longed for Diwali to be recognized by city officials like other major religious holidays. Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains around the world.

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This year, not only is Diwali on a school day — it’s also a parent-teacher conference afternoon for hundreds of thousands of New York City elementary school children.

There may be some hope for next year: Mayor-elect Eric Adams has vowed to “sign [Diwali] into a holiday” after he takes office Jan. 1. And Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn/Queens) last Wednesday introduced a bill to make Diwali a federal holiday.

Meanwhile, a statewide Diwali school holiday bill introduced two years ago by Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-L.I.) hasn’t made it out of the Senate Education Committee.

“We came here,” said Thomas, the first Indian-American lawmaker to serve in the State Senate. “We left everything in India and we settled here, we’re not going back. So if we’re getting those holidays back home, let’s try to do something here.”

In 2018, Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm introduced a resolution calling on the city to declare Diwali a school holiday. The measure hasn’t gone anywhere.

Advocates blame the dual legislative logjam on the influence of the United Federation of Teachers. But a UFT spokesperson said the union had not taken a position on the holiday proposal.

Assemblymember Jennifer Rajkumar (D-Queens) speaks at a campaign event for Eric Adams, May 11, 2021.
Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

‘A Very Important Holiday’

Asked recently about why Diwali isn’t a day off in the public schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the “school calendar has gotten very, very full,” putting the city in danger of not meeting the state minimum standard for class time.

De Blasio had already added as days off the Asian Lunar New Year and the Muslim holidays Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, joining the Jewish Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and Christian Christmas holidays as fixtures on the city schools calendar.

Still, the mayor expressed hope that students could honor Diwali in some way. “Diwali is a very important holiday,” de Blasio said. “We want it celebrated in schools. We want there to be a recognition.”

This year, the school calendar has midday parent-teacher conferences for elementary and K-8 schools scheduled on the same day as Diwali.

“It’s shocking to me and it’s disrespectful,” said Richard David, a member of the Diwali Coalition of New York City. “Imagine having your PTA [meeting] on Christmas night.”

Diwali is when families celebrate the victory of light over evil, knowledge over ignorance and unity and togetherness. It’s traditional for families to clean, set up diya lamps outside of temples, in the home, or on the streets, cook and pray together, and give gifts. But the school day intrudes on the sense of unity, observers of the holiday say.

The eight annual “Diwali at Times Square” celebration drew a crowd at the Crossroads of the World this past weekend.
Photo by Christopher Alvarez/Chalkbeat

‘It’s Long Overdue’

During a Zoom call last year with the Diwali Coalition of New York City, then-mayoral candidate Adams promised to add the holiday to the school calendar.

“The city must look like the diversity of the people who are actually in the city,” Adams said. “I’m the United Nations candidate. I resonate throughout the entire city and the holiday is a way of saying that ‘We acknowledge your existence, and we respect the culture that you bring to this great city.’”

State Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar (D-Queens), a sponsor of the Assembly version of the Diwali bill, said she was hopeful that next year would bring change.

“It has widespread support and widespread acknowledgement that the time has come to finally make Diwali a school holiday,” said Rajkumar, the first South Asian-American woman to be elected to a state office in New York. “I think everyone knows that it’s long overdue and the enthusiasm is there among New Yorkers.”

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