Public school students in Cambridge will get a day off Monday in what officials believe will be the first time in the state that a school district has scheduled a holiday to recognize an Islamic holy day.
The district-wide school holiday will recognize Eid Al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, and was approved by the Cambridge School Committee last year.
“We’re ecstatic about this,” said Atif Harden, the interim executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “This is the first year that it’s going to occur. This sort of recognition of our existence and the population we have, we feel very good about.”
Cambridge School officials said they approved the day off from school last year in an effort to make it easier for Muslim students to honor their highest holy days. Every year, city schools will close either for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, depending on which holiday falls within the school year. If both fall within the school calendar, the district will close for only one of those days.
Cambridge schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holidays, and Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young said the school district has a significant number of Muslim students.
“I think this shows that we live up to our values and our values are of inclusion and of respect,” Young said.
State and federal laws require schools to make reasonable accommodation for the religious needs of students and in observance of holy days, but the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education leaves decisions about how to do that up to individual school districts.
Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that to his knowledge Cambridge is the first school district in Massachusetts to close schools for a Muslim holiday.
Elsewhere, other school systems including Dearborn, Mich. and Burlington, Vt., already close for at least one Muslim holiday each year.
But Marc McGovern, a member of the Cambridge School Committee who pushed for the Muslim holiday, speculated that one reason other school districts in Massachusetts haven’t approved a day off for Islamic holy days may be because their Muslim student populations aren’t big enough for the holiday to make sense.
McGovern said officials may also be reluctant to stir up the type of controversy Cambridge did when it approved the day off. Cambridge announced the move last year as the national discussion about Islam was being fueled by a controversial Mosque proposal two blocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
McGovern said he received criticism and a couple of threats last year from places around the country after the School Committee approved the Muslim holiday.
“It took us a long time to get here, and we’re a pretty progressive city,” McGovern said. “It makes a statement that we’re not going to put all Muslims into the categories that some people put them in. They are not all enemies.”
Harden said he believes the reason it has taken so long for a local school district to schedule a day off for a Muslim holiday because the population of Muslims has not been large enough.
But Harden said the population is growing, and he’s not surprised that Cambridge would approve the day off.
“Cambridge has always been a leader in things like this,” he said.
Aicha Belabbes , at 14-year-old freshmen at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School , said it means a lot to her and other Muslim students that the school district approved the day off from school.
In previous years, she said students would have to skip school to spend time with their families on the holiday and then make up their assignments later.
When school resumes Tuesday, a group of about a dozen Muslim students at the high school plan to pass out candy and hold a party during lunch where they will tell fellow students about their culture and the meaning of Eid al-Adha.
“Over the past 10 years since 9/11, Muslims have definitely been trying to combat the stereotypes about us,” Belabbes said. “This is one of the many efforts to create diversity and get rid of stereotypes.”
Akhi Begum, a 15-year-old sophomore, said Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha as a remembrance of the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. In the end Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his son, and Muslims continue to sacrifice an animal for the holiday and give portions to the poor, Harden said.
Ramazan Nigdelioglu , a physics teacher at the high school who is Muslim, said teachers, including non-Muslim teachers along with students and other school officials had worked toward establishing the district-wide holiday. Nigdelioglu said he too is looking forward spending the day with family.
“When it’s a holiday, you feel like you are home, like you are in your country,” he said.