Testimony in favor of excused absences for Jewish holidays

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Today I testified in front of the WA Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in support of SB5173, a bill which would provide for excused absences at work or school for “days of faith or conscience”–i.e., in our case, Jewish holidays that conflict with work or school. I joined a panel with a representative of the Jewish Federation in Seattle and two members of the Seattle Muslim community in support. While the bill won’t go anywhere this year, the hearing set it up for consideration next session. Here is my testimony:

Members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the Jewish community of Olympia and I am also representing the Jewish Coalition for Justice. I am in strong support of SB 5173.

As a member of a religious minority in this country, I recognize the benefit I have received from rights enshrined in our country’s founding documents, specifically those related to religious liberty. Our federal and state governments have not only sought to avoid the establishment of religion in the public sphere, but have gone out of its way to protect the rights of religious minorities.

This bill recognizes that along with the freedom of conscience that comes with religious liberty, so too must there be a freedom to worship and celebrate according to one’s beliefs. Although religious liberty is guaranteed, its execution often runs up against practical difficulties, especially when holidays and celebrations conflict with the normal course of our civic life and calendar.

Within Judaism, while our weekly Sabbath falls on the weekend, our holiday cycle is not so accommodating. Jewish practice is based on a lunar calendar, with holiday dates laid down in our sacred Scripture. The result is that in relationship to our common Gregorian calendar, the Jewish festivals often fall on weekdays, and do not fall on the same (Gregorian) date from year to year.

In order to fully observe these holidays—and not every holiday requires a day off—students and parents must negotiate a day off from school, and others a day off of work. In my own experience as a congregational rabbi and as a parent of school-aged children, this sometimes goes smoothly, and sometimes does not. Sometimes, especially students, are given a hard time about work missed, or a test to retake. (It is especially challenging for Jewish students because the most important holidays fall during the fall, not long after a new school year has begun.) This bill will go a long way to not only protect those students from what they then perceive to be discrimination, but also educate people about faiths and celebrations different than their own.

The Jewish community, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters and others, do not seek any special considerations outside those granted to all—the ability to assemble and worship without fear of reprisal, punishment or being made to feel that our faith is inconvenient or second class. To that end I urge the support of SB 5173.

Thank you.

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