State competition competes with Passover


Clayton High School junior Rebeccah Singer was very excited about being part of the school’s Readers Theatre team this year.

Then she discovered that the state speech, debate and drama finals, which are held at the University of Missouri in Columbia, are scheduled for April 19; the first Passover Seder is that evening. Last year she was part of the school’s team which captured first place at the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) competition.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

“I had asked about the forward dates of the competition and saw the conflict with Passover,” Rebeccah said. “It was a deal breaker.”

Rebecca’s father, Steve Singer, is the president of the Board of Education of the School District of Clayton. He called Dr. Don Senti, superintendent of the district and told him about the situation. The two called the MSHSAA with the understanding the date could not be changed for this year, but wanted to avoid conflicts in the future. They spoke with the organization’s executive director, Dr. Kerwin Urhahn, according to the letter sent by the school district.

“We were told that they checked with their attorney and could not consider religious holidays when they make out their schedule,” Singer said. “But they clearly do consider some holidays since nothing ever is scheduled on Good Friday, Easter and Christmas.”

It was that initial response which prompted Singer and the School District of Clayton Board of Education to further pursue the matter.

“The board discussed the problem and unanimously approved a letter on Feb. 20 to be sent to Dr. Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of MSHSAA,” Director of Communications for School District of Clayton Chris Tennill said. “All seven school board members signed it — only two of the members are Jewish.”

The school board letter encourages MSHSAA to consider the major religious holidays when doing their scheduling and not create “unnecessary conflicts for students and parents.” It also says MSHSAA needs to “avoid treating certain religions or their holidays on a preferential basis. If you would not schedule an event on Christmas Eve, then the same standard should be applied to other major religious holidays.” The letter included an interfaith calendar website address and suggested the MSHSAA use it for future planning.

It is not just a Jewish issue, Singer pointed out.

“We live in an increasingly multicultural state,” Singer said. “We have a large Bosnian population some of which are Muslim. We need to be more sensitive of our differences; and religious holidays ought to be a factor for all high school events. It isn’t just for the kids. The parents want to be able to see their kids compete.”

Rick Kindhart, MSHSAA Assistant Executive Director for Communications, spoke with Urhahn before clarifying the organization’s position.

“We are going to be very sensitive to this issue in the future,” Kindhart said. “We can’t preclude every possibility but we need to be cognizant of key religious holidays.”

The MSHSAA board discussed the situation as new business at their Board of Directors March 6 meeting. Kindhart provided the motion and action taken by the board to the St. Louis Jewish Light for this article though the minutes of the meeting were not available in their final form at press time.

The motion acknowledges “receipt of Clayton’s letter of concern regarding the speech and debate tournament taking place on Passover” and recommends sending “a letter thanking Clayton for sharing its concerns…” It also said it will “take these concerns under advisement when scheduling future event.” The motion passed 7-0.

Kindhart said Urhahn had called the Clayton school district to advise them of the board action but had not sent an official letter yet.

Tennill understands the challenges to work around so many things when planning calendars two, three, four and five years out. He said Clayton is probably able to do it “95%” of the time. The district reminds teachers not to assign tests or papers on the Jewish High Holy Days.

“We do not want to create conflicts for students and/or their parents by forcing them to choose,” Tennill said. “It is usually easy to steer clear of the big issues.”

Kindhart said most of the speech, debate and drama competition occurs on Friday and the finals on Saturday would be done by 2 p.m. which would give participating students the opportunity to get home before the seder. However, he understands that that response doesn’t address the issue of parents and others coming to support their students or acknowledge the depth of the holiday.

“It’s not just about showing up for dinner,” Rebeccah said. “It’s about the preparations and being with your family, which is just as important as the meal.”

Several other school districts contacted said they had not heard of any problems or knew that their students had made alternative arrangements. Cathy Kelly of Communications and Public Information at Parkway School District had not heard of any conflicts. Ladue Director of Communications, Kathy Reznikov, said she knew of students who had made ride arrangements so they are able to leave right after they compete.

Clayton High School sophomore Hannah Klein was also a member of the 2007 award winning Readers Theatre team. She didn’t recognize the conflict when the dates were posted and actually had a part and started rehearsals when she found out about the problem. She went home to talk to her family and decided to withdraw from the competition.

She knows about the MSHSAA response that the competition would be completed in time for the students to be home in time for the holiday.

“I don’t find that acceptable,” Klein said. “It is a family holiday and often people come in from out of town. It is an entire day of preparation and visiting, not just popping in for dinner. And what if there was a traffic problem or things ran late? It shouldn’t have been scheduled on that day in the first place.”