Diwali Officially a Public School Holiday

Adams, Rajkumar and Banks outside Tweed Courthouse in October 2022. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

By Alicia Venter | aventer@queensledger.com

As of June 10, Diwali is a public school holiday in New York City.

A bill passed by the state legislature officially adds Diwali to the list of days that public school students will not have to attend school, effective July 1.

The legislation (A-7769) was introduced by State Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar — who represents parts of Glendale, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Ridgewood and Woodhaven — in October 2022, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Education Chancellor David Banks offering public support for the legislation.

“Nothing can stop a community whose time has come,” Rajkumar said in a press release. “People said this would be impossible but we made it happen. To everyone who believed in the power of the possible—whether in the legislature, the streets of Queens, or all around the world, this victory is yours.”

Diwali is a sacred holiday for over 200,000 Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist New Yorkers. Celebrating good over evil, and light over darkness, the holiday falls on ​​the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Indian calendar in each year, as is the beginning of the fiscal year in the country as well.

In the Gregorian calendar, that typically falls in November — this year, it will be on Sunday, Nov. 12.

“If approved by Governor Hochul, New York’s growing South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities will now have the same recognition and accommodation afforded to those that observe other holidays,” said State Senator Joe Addabbo, who was the bill’s senate sponsor, in a press release. “I admire the significance of Diwali, to show how light can overpower darkness, good can overcome evil, a message celebrating positivity and encouragement.”

When initially announced, Rajkumar stated that in order to adhere to the mandate in State Education Law Section 3604, which requires a minimum of 180 days of school instruction, that “Anniversary Day” should be removed from the public school calendar.

Anniversary Day, described as an “antiquated holiday” by Rajkumar in an October 2022 press conference, recognizes the founding of the first Sunday school in Brooklyn in the 1800s, with state law requiring that Brooklyn and Queens schools close on this day.

According to the amended state education law passed by the state legislature, both Anniversary Day and Diwali stand as public school holidays. There were no public school holidays removed from the calendar, as of publication.

It is long overdue to say to our Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist students and communities that, we see you, we acknowledge you,” said Mayor Adams in a press release. “The inclusiveness of this city is extremely significant and this is our opportunity to say that in a loud way.”

As this legislation was inked, other Queens elected officials were staunchly working to promote similar legislation. Flushing congresswoman Grace Meng announced her introduction of legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday on May 26 via Zoom. If passed, the Diwali Day Act will give public school students across the nation the day off from school.

“A federal holiday for Diwali would give millions of families the time deserved to celebrate together, as well as educate others about the history and significance of this auspicious day,” said Meng during the virtual press conference.

Queens Leaders Push for Federal Recognition of Diwali

Over a dozen local officials and community leaders expressed their support for the legislation during the Zoom conference.

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

Congresswoman Grace Meng was joined by local Queens pols and advocacy leaders on May 26 to announce her introduction of legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday.

If passed, the Diwali Day Act will give students in public schools across the country a day off from school and become the 12th federally recognized holiday in the nation.

“A federal holiday for Diwali would give millions of families the time deserved to celebrate together, as well as educate others about the history and significance of this auspicious day,” said Congresswoman Meng during the virtual press conference on Friday afternoon.

Diwali, which is also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for five days by South Asians, Southeast Asians, Indo-Caribbeans and by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. It usually falls sometime in October or November, depending on the Indian calendar and the new moon.

Diwali signifies the spiritual victory of light over darkness and goodness over evil. It is one of the most important festivals for religions prominent in India and also marks the beginning of the fiscal year in the country.

Meng chose to announce the initiative during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, instead of in the fall when Diwali is celebrated, to showcase the diversity of Asian Americans. She also mentioned that the introduction of the bipartisan bill is early enough for it to pass in time for the holiday.

“It is high time to recognize Diwali as a holiday in U.S. public schools,” said Dr. Neeta Jain, Founder and President of the International Ahimsa Foundation. “Our children should be treated equally. As our children celebrate other cultures, others should celebrate and learn about our culture as well. This is the only way we can teach children to have mutual respect, mutual understanding and mutual acceptance.”

More than one legislator pointed out that Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, the Asian population doubled between 2000 and 2019, and is projected to surpass 46 million by 2060.

According to the Asian American Federation, in both Brooklyn and Queens, the Asian population increased by over 120,000 in the past decade.

Meng also mentioned that she is pushing similar acts for Eid, which signifies the end of Ramadan in Islam, and Lunar New Year which is celebrated by several different cultures.

“Today the congresswoman has taken a historic step toward honoring the communities who celebrate Diwali, not only in our city, but all across the country,” said Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education, David C. Banks, during the Zoom conference. “I think that’s a huge, huge deal.”

City Councilwoman, Linda Lee who represents swaths of eastern Queens, recently initiated and passed legislation in the council to make Diwali a school holiday in NYC. In the fall of 2023, Diwali will be a holiday for NYC public schools.

“Given the rise in hate crimes that we’ve seen over the years, I’m hoping that bringing these holidays into our schools will really help at a very young age, teach our children the importance of the diversity of the city and how wonderful it is to celebrate all of these different cultures in our schools,” said Councilmember Lee.

So far, 14 members have already signed the legislation. Meng says that at this point in the process she is working to collect as many cosponsors as possible across the political aisle.

“We didn’t get here overnight. Even a few years ago when someone even mentioned the word Diwali. People were confused,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents Flushing .”But now we are at a point of ‘Oh, It’s not a holiday yet?’ And it’s because of the normalization.”

Electeds introduce bill to make Diwali a public school holiday

Legislation has been introduced to the New York State Assembly for Diwali to become a public school holiday. This designation would constitute for school to be canceled for the celebration of Diwali.

Despite previous efforts not coming to fruition due to an inability for holidays to be added to the academic calendar, elected officials believe they have found a solution — remove ‘Anniversary Day’ as an academic holiday so room can be made for Diwali.

The bill for Diwali to become a public school holiday was introduced last week by Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar, with support from Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Education Chancellor David Banks. They announced their partnership and support for this bill on Thursday, Oct. 20, at Tweed Courthouse on 52 Chambers Street in Manhattan.

“South Asian and Indo-Caribbean families like mine all over this city have made incredible contributions,” Rajkumar said. “Today, I am proud to say, our time has come.”

Diwali, one of the most sacred holidays for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, was celebrated this year on Oct. 24. It is observed on the 15th day of the 8th month in India’s calendar, and falls in either October or November of the Gregorian calendar used in the United States. Diwali is celebrated by an estimated 200,000 New Yorkers, with celebrations for the “Festival of Lights” held throughout the city.

Similar bills have been presented in the past — in 2021, Rajkumar introduced a bill to establish Diwali as a school holiday and it was introduced in the New York State Senate by Senator Kevin Thomas. In 2018, Councilman Danny Dromm introduced a resolution, wanting the Department of Education to establish an official Diwali holiday.

None of these attempts came to fruition, with claims that there were not enough days in the academic calendar to add another holiday. As mandated by State Education Law Section 3604, there must be a minimum of 180 days of school instruction.

Together, Rajkumar, Chancellor Banks and Adams were able to find a “surplus” — a day that can be used to celebrate Diwali “without our young people losing days of school in the process.” That day is Anniversary Day, also known as Brooklyn-Queens Day. 

Anniversary Day, termed an “antiquated holiday” by Rajkumar, recognizes the anniversary of the founding of the first Sunday school in Brooklyn in the 1800s. State law requires Brooklyn and Queens schools close on this day, and as a result the city closes all schools that day.

“There is no religious obligation or longstanding tradition compelling anyone to forgo school or work to observe the day. Given this lack of significance, Anniversary Day is an appropriate school holiday to rescind to accommodate designation of Diwali as a school holiday,” the bill reads.

“This is an educational moment,” Adams said. “When we acknowledge Diwali, we are going to encourage children to learn about what [Diwali is].”

“As [Chancellor Banks] has stated over and over again, education must be a place where we develop the full personhood of our children, not only to make them academically smart but emotionally intelligent,” he continued. “That intelligence comes from acknowledging and seeing each other.”

Community Board 9 — which represents Woodhaven, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens — and its chairperson Sherry Algredo have previously shown support for Diwali to become a public school holiday. When Rajkumar introduced the bill in 2021, Algredo, then first Vice Chair and an education chair, headed the passage of a resolution in the Community Board calling for Diwali to be recognized as a school holiday.

“It is a religious holiday,” Algredo told The Ledger on Oct. 20. “Just like everybody else, you would like to see it recognized.”

If passed, the bill would take effect on July 1, 2023. The assembly is set to reconvene in January 2023.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Rajkumar said, quoting Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. “I have brought this bill to the table so that all South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers will have a seat at the table.”

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