JACKSON HEIGHTS — It's a fight for the festival of lights.
A local councilman is asking the Department of Education to recognize Diwali — a Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh festival that involves lighting lamps to keep away evil spirits — as an official school holiday off, arguing that tens of thousands of children are now forced to choose between going to school and spending time with their families.
City Councilman Daniel Dromm held a press conference with other elected officials and community members Thursday to demand that the Department of Education designate Diwali as a day off for public school students. The third of the five-day festival falls on Nov. 3 this year, and is the most celebrated day, the councilman explained.
"These students must pick between attending class or spending the day with their families, while students in the Christian and Jewish faiths do not have to make this decision when they celebrate holidays like Rosh Hashana and Christmas," Dromm said. "There shouldn’t be this discrepancy."
Dromm introduced a bill to recognize Diwali in the city Council in July, and he said 15 council members have co-sponsored it. He's also received the support of several other state elected officials.
“We need a public school calendar that is reflective of the growing diversity of our communities so that students from these various faiths have the opportunity to observe their religious traditions without sacrificing valuable time in the classroom," said Rep. Joe Crowley, who represents Queens and The Bronx in Congress.
Ranju Batra, chair of the Diwali Stamp Project and president of Association of Indians in America-NY, said the meaning of Diwali is the holiday's "hidden message of necessary unity."
"To me, Diwali’s message of 'Light over Darkness' means eliminating ignorance and discrimination of every kind," she said.
However, the city has no plans to make Diwali an official holiday.
"When you have a city as diverse as New York, you simply cannot add a holiday for every religion," spokesman Jake Goldman said.
"The city hasn't added a school holiday since MLK day in 1986 for that reason. We ensure students can practice their religion and are not penalized in their attendance but we cannot start adding new citywide school holidays."