Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lakewood school bus drivers required to work Thanksgiving to accommodate Orthodox Jewish students 

While most New Jerseyans will pause next week to give thanks and eat
turkey, taking a day off from work and school to celebrate Thanksgiving, for many Orthodox Jews in Lakewood it will be business as usual.

And in an unwelcome surprise, school bus drivers have been told they will be working, too.

Thanksgiving is a regular school day for most kids in the Ocean
County town where some 18,000 children attend more than 70 private
Orthodox Jewish schools. About 5,300 students attend public schools,
which are closed for the national and state holiday.

State law requires the district to bus both public and private school students, although in recent years the private schools worked out ways
to avoid it on Thanksgiving. Last year, most private school families
carpooled that day.

But after a resident raised the issue at a school board meeting
earlier this year, public school officials looked into the matter. As a
result, private bus contracting companies serving the schools were told
they have to work this Thanksgiving.

"I feel for my drivers, I don't want them to have to work on
Thanksgiving," said Jay Ellinson, owner of Jay's Bus Service, which has
about 100 drivers transporting township kids. Ellinson is Orthodox but
said most of his drivers are not.

"I myself will be on a bus, if my driving helps a driver be off and
be with their family," he said. "I think the right thing to do is let
them enjoy the day off. But if they make us work — I don't make the

School and bus company officials said the last time Lakewood kids
were bused on Thanksgiving was 2003. After that, in what one official
said was an effort to save public schools money, private schools agreed
to forgo busing on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Memorial

School board attorney Michael Inzelbuch said the law is clear:
Between Sept. 1 and June 30, on weekdays when school is open, busing
must be provided.
In addition, he said, in a town with so many schools, and major highways criss-crossing, busing is a safety issue.

"When busing is not provided, this town essentially enters one big gridlock," he said.

In an attempt to be sensitive to bus drivers — and after the issue
erupted — district officials this week began polling Orthodox schools
about Thanksgiving busing.
As of Wednesday, Lakewood transportation consultant Gus Kakavas said
six schools waived the busing altogether; 25 requested morning runs
only; and 12 said they needed transportation both ways. The remaining
schools hadn't decided, he said, and if they don't do so by Wednesday,
they will get full busing.

As one small consolation, Inzelbuch offered all bus drivers who work
that day a pumpkin pie "or like pastry/dessert" as a gesture of

Most bus drivers — who include part-time workers and single parents,
some of whom were afraid to give their names for fear of losing their
jobs — aren't happy.

"Many of us already made arrangements to go away, spend time with
family," said Adeola Ademosu, a manager and driver at Klarr bus service. "All of a sudden, they want us to drive. I really don't think that's

Several Orthodox schools said they did not want to comment, but a few parents said they would not mind driving their kids that day.

Jane Eisenberger has seven children, three of whom are still in the Orthodox schools.

"I have no problem with there not being busing on Thanksgiving," she
said. "It's a little more difficult, but everyone understands it's a

Lakewood's Orthodox Jewish population has exploded in the past
decade. Six of nine Lakewood school board members are Orthodox and send
their kids to the private schools, said member Chesky Seitler.

Deputy Mayor Steve Langert, who is Orthodox, said Lakewood is the
only town in the country where private school kids so outnumber those in public school.
"It presents unique challenges and unique situations," he said.

Among those: Lakewood appears to be the only town in the state where
most kids go to school on Thanksgiving. A spokesman for the New Jersey
School Boards Association said public and private schools are free to
choose the holidays they close, but he knows of no public district that
will be open on Thanksgiving.

Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a member of a Jewish leadership council in
Lakewood called the Vaad, said the Orthodox community appreciates the
meaning of Thanksgiving but don't close school for it.

"We're not trying to be cruel or keep people away from their
families," he said. "In Jewish school tradition, we don't celebrate
holidays by taking off from school — even Chanukah most schools have

But Jewish religious holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana have
restrictions that require schools to close, he said. Sukkot — another
fall holiday — provides a longer, midterm break.

Langert said with many days lost to religious observance, Orthodox schools have to make up the time somewhere.
"It is not meant as a sign of disrespect to be open on Thanksgiving," he said. "Growing up, we celebrated Thanksgiving. My children have been taught Thanksgiving is a day that America thanks God for the ability to live in a free society. We eat our turkey Friday night for the sabbath


I think the bottom line here is that the bus drivers are not being respected for one of the most important days of the American calendar. Yes, the cold logic dictates that the school has the right to ask them to work because they take their studies seriously, fine.

But at the same time Thanksgiving & Christmas are the two days of the year most important to American culture. And the reason they're the most important is because it's one of only two days of the year most Americans get to reconnect with their families in a open and loving way. We're not talking having to make people work on Labor Day or something, we're talking about Thanksgiving, a solemn day for family- one of the most important aspects of most of our lives.

I'm Jewish, and the fact that board decided the way it did makes me angry. Especially as even many of the Orthodox residents sided with the bus drivers and offered to car-pool that day, yet the school board members went against their wishes.

It's wrong, it's disrespectful and being Jewish myself, it embarrasses me.


Why doesn’t the Jewish community celebrate Thanksgiving? It isn’t a religious holiday, it’s an American holiday. This is a Holiday for everyone in the USA, aren’t Jews Americans?


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