Meredith Carroll: The Aspen School District’s Jewish problem |

Meredith Carroll: The Aspen School District’s Jewish problem

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

“How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?” political commentator Ann Coulter tweeted during the second Republican presidential debate Sept. 16.

There must have been some context to her question, although, frankly, to most of the roughly 5.4 million Jews in the United States, no clarification makes her word choice any less offensive. Equally as insulting is imagining that, at some point, someone else also may have asked how many f—ing Jews there are in Aspen and then proceeded to estimate a number too small to care about.

There are reasons why Aspen High School’s experiential-education trip was held over Yom Kippur last week and Aspen Middle School’s outdoor-education trip was held over Rosh Hashanah earlier this month. However, as with Coulter’s tweet, regardless of the rationale, scheduling two major school trips over two of the most sacred occasions on the Jewish calendar still feels startlingly rude.

While there are nowhere near 5.4 million Jews in Aspen (or that many people in all of Colorado, for that matter), there are still enough of them in the community to sustain three separate Jewish congregations. That means more than a few local Jewish families had to make a choice between keeping their kids home to observe the High Holy Days or sending them on a trip that’s arguably the highlight of the district calendar, where “perhaps more than at any other time in the school year, a student most explicitly sees a benefit and a return on the time spent in studying, listening and learning,” according to the high school’s website.

It was just two years ago that the district pledged to work more closely with the Jewish community on coordinating calendars. While offering no guarantees, Superintendent John Maloy nevertheless said: “The district and its staff are committed to doing their best to recognize the ‘important holidays’ … and make every effort to make appropriate adjustments.”

Two excuses as to why the trips weren’t scheduled later in the fall include the International Baccalaureate testing dates and Colorado High School Activities Association sports schedule. But even if there are do-or-die exams and can’t-miss games, why isn’t the choice to stay or to go left to the athletes and high-performing students? Is there some concern they might feel a prejudice against what they value most? (This, despite International Baccalaureate classes and sports not actually qualifying as religions — despite what Mensa and ESPN might say.) Or is it just easier to default to discriminating against Jews since they have more experience with it?

Adding insult to injury is that in other parts of the country, such conflicts are nonexistent; school is simply not in session on Jewish holidays. Even still, no Aspenites are asking for the Jewish holidays to be declared school-free, just for considerably more consideration during the major holidays.

“We’re sensitive to it,” school board member Sandra Peirce said, “but there are times when there’s going to be conflict. There are hard choices from everyone’s perspective.”

The choice from the Jewish perspective, though, just might cut deeper. It puts some families in the delicate position of either holding their kids back from an experience where “teaching and learning (are) extend(ed) to settings beyond the classroom, and the multiplicity of settings affords a means of injecting appeal, excitement and variety into both the teaching and the learning processes,” according to the school website, or letting them go on the trips and then risk diluting the message of, among other things, the importance of maintaining a strong Jewish identity, especially in a part of the country where preserving a distinctive cultural connection is already trickier due to a smaller critical mass.

Of course, there’s something to be said about learning to make tough choices, but no public school should put kids in a tug of war between academics and faith. The hypocrisy isn’t lost on one Aspen High School student, who said, “Children are constantly being told by everyone — parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses, friends, etc. — to respect each other’s differences, and how interesting is it that the concept is not being modeled by our school district?”

If the school tiptoes around Christmas and Easter, the same sensitivity should be shown to the Jewish calendar. There may be fewer Jews than Christians in Aspen, but the religious observations of both should be treated with equal deference. It’s doubtful the scheduling of major school events during major Jewish holidays is meant as an attack, yet that doesn’t make the wound smart any less.

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