Fairfax County School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish addresses the reaction to her tweet criticizing Israel at the board’s May 20 meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Abrar Omeish doesn’t regret taking a stand on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if she could go back, she might have expressed her opinion a little differently.

The at-large Fairfax County School Board member sparked a heated local debate about one of the most contentious subjects in global politics last month when she recognized Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes a month of fasting, with a tweet decrying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid and colonization.”

As the board’s only Muslim member and the first Muslim woman elected to a school board anywhere in Virginia, Omeish says she felt a responsibility to speak up about the escalating violence that, at that time, had killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, and 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children.

Her May 13 tweet was part of the larger #EidwithPalestine hashtag that went emerged after Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem amid tensions over Palestinians being evicted from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“The idea was [Muslims] celebrate [Eid], but it’s bittersweet because we can celebrate while mourning and knowing that our Holy Land is being disrespected and people are being killed in their efforts to defend it,” Omeish told Reston Now. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate backlash.”

That backlash came from expected sources, given the school board’s decidedly Democratic makeup, as the Fairfax County Republican Committee chair called for Omeish’s resignation or removal and endorsed a parent-led campaign to recall her and other school board members that originally stemmed from frustrations with pandemic-related school closures in the fall.

However, the tweet also drew some criticism from colleagues and allies.

Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said in a tweet on May 14 that she was “aghast” and “appalled,” calling Omeish’s sentiments alienating to members of the community, including herself, and a setback to Fairfax County Public Schools’ equity-related efforts.

“Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen,” Meren said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington nixed plans to honor Omeish for supporting the recognition of additional religious holidays in the FCPS calendar. Four other school board members were still honored at the advocacy group’s annual membership meeting on May 20.

“The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel,” JCRC President Ronald Paul and Executive Director Ron Halber said in a joint statement on the decision. “…It is irresponsible of her to use her public platform to publicly advance controversial political views that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community.”

The letter went on to say that conversations about why JCRC found Omeish’s comment offensive were unproductive as she “continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony” by not removing the tweet or taking “affirmative steps to try to stem the vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks.”

For her part, Omeish says JCRC’s statement was “a complete mischaracterization” of how she approached their interactions, saying that she “got yelled at on the phone aggressively” and has “been threatened by JCRC multiple times” about her stance on Israel.

“They told me, if you don’t take this down, we will post a statement about you and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “They would say things like that to me, and for me, I’m like, look, I respectfully reject the threat. I’m not going to change my position because you’re scaring me.”

Halber and JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel disputed Omeish’s characterization of their interactions in a statement to Reston Now:

“We took no pleasure in having to rescind Ms. Omeish’s award. But there is no place for the divisive and offensive language she used in her May 13th Tweet or for her insulting insinuations about the JCRC. We never have and never would threaten anyone. Ms. Omeish stands out among the thousands of elected officials and interfaith leaders from every background who have successfully partnered with the JCRC in nearly a century of community-building. We hope Ms. Omeish undertakes the hard work necessary to understand how her hurtful language impacted members of the Jewish community, including our children in FCPS schools. For the benefit of the entire FCPS community, we hope to be able to work with Ms. Omeish in the future to pursue unity, equity, and mutual respect in Fairfax County.”

Omeish got another opportunity to engage with Jewish leaders, as she promised in a follow-up tweet, at a roundtable convened on May 23. Read More

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In a divisive decision, the Fairfax County School Board voted late last week to recognize some religious holidays in the next school year, but fell short of giving students a day off on those days.

Next year’s academic year will not give students a day off on 15 religious observances, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid, and Diwali. In what proponents described as a middle-ground option, the holidays would be recognized as special days during which tests, quizzes, field trips, and other events would not be scheduled.

Overall, students would receive an allowance of 16 hours to make up for any religious or cultural reasons.

The following religious and cultural observance will be observed; Eid al-Adha, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Día de los Muertos, Diwali, Bodhi Day, Three Kings Day/Epiphany, Orthodox Christmas, Orthodox Epiphany, Lunar New Year, Ramadan, Good Friday, Theravada, Orthodox Good Friday/Last Night of Passover and Eid al-Fitr. The days were selected based on absentee rates over the last five years.

Employees will also be given up to 16 hours of any time missed for religious and cultural observances.

School board chair Ricardy Anderson touted the move as one that favors “equity and inclusivity.”

“It aims to center equity by elevating our systems’ respect for religious and cultural observances. While this final calendar for 2021-22 may not align with the goals of everyone in Fairfax County, it recognizes all religious and cultural observances where Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has seen above-average absences over the last five years,” Anderson wrote in a statement.

In a letter to the FCPS community, Superintendent Scott Brabrand recognized that the discussion surrounding this issue was divisive and riled by faith organizations and parents.

“We acknowledge that while this has been a challenging discussion, FCPS is committed to equity for all of its students and staff. Moving forward, FCPS will establish a calendar development process that allows the School Board to identify clear criteria and priorities for the calendar; defines the roles of staff, Board, and community members; and creates a robust community engagement process that outlines how and where feedback will be solicited and shared with the Board,” Brabrand said.

But the decision drew concern from many local and area religious groups. In a joint statement, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples of Metropolitan Washington, Durga Temple of Virginia, Hindu American Foundation, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, McLean Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, and Temple Rodef Shalom wrote that the school board’s attempt to divide religious groups backfired.

“While the school board has sought to divide us further, we have coalesced around this issue, strengthening our commitment to one another and to the equity of religious minority groups in Fairfax County. We will continue to hold the FCPS School Board and Administration accountable to ensure that our communities are not disadvantaged by the decisions taken today,” the statement reads. 

The new rules will go into effect when the school year begins on July 1. The board also voted to decouple Good Friday from Spring Break.

Photo via FCPS

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Inundated with messages from staff and community members on proposed changes to the 2021-22 calendar, Fairfax County School Board members directed Superintendent Scott Brabrand to redraft it.

During a work session on Tuesday (Mar. 2), the board told staff to consider ways to add flexibility through floating holidays. They said the calendar should take into account legal considerations, instruction, student wellness and pay for support staff, as well as survey preferences, absenteeism data, transparency and equity.

The school board will vote on a final calendar on Mar. 18.

FCPS announced last June that the school board will consider two ways to add in four religious holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 7, 2021), Yom Kippur (Sept. 16, 2021), Diwali (Nov. 4, 2021), and Eid al Fitr (May 3, 2022).

FCPS drafted a third proposal without those holidays in February, as some board members expressed reservations about the potential disruptions they would create.

“Support staff have been very vocal in terms of what the impact on their work will be,” School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson, who represents the Mason District, said on Tuesday. “I’m very mindful of what this means for our families who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch. We also know that we’re coming out of the pandemic, and we have had a lot of impact in terms of continuity of learning.”

Anderson reported receiving 269 messages from support staff, estimating at least 100 more. Member-at-large Karen Keys-Gamarra also said she received more than 700 written responses on the calendar.

Meanwhile, 286 students have signed a petition, and 76 clergy and faith organizations have signed a letter initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) urging the board to add the holidays.

Responding to the news that FCPS would be developing a new calendar, the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia said in a statement that it was heartened to see the board reject the calendar that did not include the new holidays.

“We are optimistic that the next option proposed will be one that is forward-thinking — acknowledging and respecting the cultural and religious diversity of the staff and students of faith in the county, as well as the community at large,” Pozez JCC Executive Director Jeff Dannick and President Susan Kristol said.

Member organizations of a Religious Observances Task Force, which FCPS formed to advise the school system on supporting religious minorities, had “strenuously” objected to the third calendar draft, saying its proposal lacked transparency.

“Given where the community has been at, where the process is so far, what data has revealed, it goes without saying that we need to give this a deliberate look,” member-at-large Abrar Omeish said.

During the work session, FCPS staff presented data from the past five years indicating that the number of absent students and staff rises on days of religious or cultural significance that are not observed in the calendar. But some board members said it is not high enough to provide secular justification for closing schools.

“Such data is a flawed indicator in this situation. It is well-known that public school students and employees very often feel forced to attend work and classes on even their most sacred holidays, for fear of being penalized or academically disadvantaged,” the Religious Observances Task Force argued in its February letter.

The school system has not “done a good job honoring religious holidays for students and employees,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said. She told Brabrand that he and his team need to do better, and the board needs formal language to would hold him accountable.

Brabrand said FCPS can “do a better job” communicating what the division expects of children and staff on days of religious and cultural significance.

On top of concerns about pay, meals, and special education services, the proposed changes also carry legal ramifications. Schools can’t close for religious reasons unless it can be justified for secular reasons, such as absenteeism being too high for them to operate.

School board members suggested adding flexibility and protections without closing schools, such as “blackout days” — when students who choose to be absent would not be penalized — and “floating holidays” allowing staff to cash in a paid day off at any time. Some said the unenforceable guidelines for homework and test guidance around holy days should be turned into regulations.

Members also spelled out multiple areas where the calendar development process broke down, including the treatment of the Religious Observances Task Force.

For instance, the task force’s work was only included in a year-end ombudsman report, rather than being presented to the board on its own, which Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders says resulted in the findings becoming lost in the frenzy of Return to School planning.

The task force and other participants in the calendar development process had certain expectations for the calendar because of their advocacy, Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie K. Meren said.

Prince William and Arlington counties recently approved calendars with school closures on Eid, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Loudoun County approved a calendar with closures on Eid, Diwali and Yom Kippur.

Photo via Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

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Approving a new calendar for the coming school year is typically one of the more routine duties administered by the Fairfax County School Board, but this time, it has become another decision complicated by competing priorities and added stakes.

The board will hold a work session at 11 a.m. today (Tuesday) to discuss proposals for the 2021-2022 school year calendar that would add four religious observance holidays not included in the current school calendar: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 7, 2021), Yom Kippur (Sept. 16, 2021), Diwali (Nov. 4, 2021), and Eid al Fitr (May 3, 2022).

Faith organizations representing Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh communities in the D.C. area have been advocating for Fairfax County Public Schools to recognize those holidays for years, an effort that began gaining traction in 2019 when the school board first convened a Religious Observance Task Force to advise the district on how it could better serve students of different faiths.

With input from the task force, a committee charged with developing the school year calendar released two drafts last June that both incorporated the proposed new holidays.

However, when the school board met on Feb. 2 to discuss the issue, FCPS presented a third draft that did not include the holidays, as some school board members expressed reservations about having more school closures after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting learning or making it more difficult for many students, among other concerns.

The religious groups involved in the task force — including the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), the Durga Temple of Virginia, Hindu American Foundation, McLean Islamic Center, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Sikh Foundation of Virginia, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) — expressed “deep disappointment” in the new turn of events in a letter sent to the school board on Feb. 9.

Disputing the idea that closing schools on four extra days would significantly affect FCPS’ ability to address learning losses, the task force criticized the board for not notifying them or the public about the new proposed draft calendar. They also noted that other jurisidictions in Northern Virginia, including Arlington, Prince William, and Loudoun counties, already recognize some or all of the holidays in question.

“We are troubled that FCPS’ natural progression to a more inclusive understanding of equity and diversity now stands to be thwarted,” the groups said. “We urge you not to obstruct or delay progress, but rather to move forward with confidence and conviction.”

As of Mar. 1, 269 current FCPS students had signed a petition from JCRC calling for the school board to add the religious holidays.

The school board will vote to officially adopt a calendar for the next school year on Mar. 16.

Photo via Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

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With Passover and Easter quickly approaching, religious organizations and state officials are encouraging people to find alternatives to large group celebrations.

Easter Sunday falls on April 12 and Passover begins on Thursday (April 9) and ends on April 16 this year — around when statisticians hypothesize COVID-19 will peak in the D.C. area.

To obey state mandates and keep their followers healthy, religious groups such as St Joseph Catholic Church and the Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon decided to host celebrations digitally and provide guides for stay-at-home worship.

For Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, while Passover is a Jewish holiday to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses.

Fairfax County released a statement reminding people that it is illegal to gather in groups of 10 or more and requested that people celebrate at home with immediate family members.

“Consider the use of technology to gather people virtually in your home to have shared meals,” the statement said. “Through various media platforms, communal sharing and celebration of religious observances can continue while keeping each other safe.”

Similar recommendations will be in place for Ramadan, which begins later in the month.

The Virginia Department of Health also released a public service announcement, primarily echoing Fairfax County’s statement.

“While the Passover Seder often includes extended family and friends, it is by tradition a ceremony of the home,” the Virginia Department of Health said. “The essence of the Seder can be the same: sitting with your family around the dining room table to remember the exodus.”

“The purpose of Jumu’a is to gather the entire community together in one place for prayer and since that cannot be done safely, imams are asking each person to pray in their own home,” according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The New York Times published an article exploring how added stress from the pandemic might influence people’s mindsets and emotions during the spring holiday season.

The article’s author encouraged readers to celebrate through family activities like video chatting, reading to one another, playing games and signing.

Congregation Beth Emeth held it’s first digital Passover celebration this morning and will host another tomorrow (April 9) at 9 a.m., the website link. People can tune in at the link listed on the group’s website, which also listed places locals can order kosher groceries and celebratory supplies.

St Joseph Catholic Church is hosting an online Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night (April 11) at 8:30 p.m. as well as an Easter morning Mass in Spanish at 12 p.m. and English at 10 a.m. Links can be found on the church’s website.

Photo via Olivia Snow/Unsplash

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During the COVID-19 outbreak, places of worship around Reston and Herndon are going digital for people who are self-isolating or quarantined.

Many pastors, priests and religious leaders are taking on leadership roles to help guide their following through stress and uncertainty associated with the outbreak.

Reverend Debra Haffner is associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. Her sermons are available for download on the church’s website.

Many religious centers are closed to the public, but a few are still holding events for regular attendees. Here’s what Reston Now has found in the area.

Reston

The Reston Presbyterian Chuch is offering live-streamed services for the congression now that in-person ceremonies have been canceled until further notice. Worshipers can tune into the service at 11 a.m. beginning Sunday (March 22), according to the church’s website. The event will be hosted through Facebook Live.

Oakbrook Church, a non-denominational gathering, is taking several steps to support followers during this time, according to the group’s Facebook page. Today (March 19) at 7 p.m., the congregation will host a Zoom session for people seeking digital companies.

St. John Neumann Catholic Community canceled gatherings of 10 or more people but is keeping its doors open for people who want to pray at least 10 feet apart from one another, according to the church’s website. Congregation leaders are also encouraging followers to watch digital Mass online on Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

“The priests at SJN will continue to offer private Masses and remember the intentions of parishioners,” according to the website.

At the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, people can attend live-streamed services beginning at 7 p.m. on Friday.

“We have modified our sanctuary setup, service plan, and camera placement to make our online congregation feel more intimate,” the website said. “Instead of using Mishkan T’filah, which we know many people do not own personal copies of, we have put together our own little siddur to guide us through tonight’s service.”

Tzu Chi of Greater Washington, which is a Buddhist charity foundation, also canceled all its in-person events, the website said, adding that video services will still be available online.

The Reston Islamic Center will remain open for men only, according to its website.

Herndon

Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist place of worship, decided to close its center until further notice, according to the website.

Herndon United Methodist Church is hosting a short Facebook Live session with its main pastor every Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Southview Community Church is doing Facebook Live events throughout the week, according to the web page. Each day, people can follow along with the church’s Facebook for announcements when church leaders will go live.

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

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A Clifton-based priest has admitted to sexual abuse of a minor at Reston church.

According to a release by the Arlington Diocese, Father Christopher Mould told the Bishop of Arlington, Michael Burbridge that he had sexual contact with a minor between 1992 and 1995 at Saint Thomas à Becket Catholic Church in Reston. Mould was a parochial vicar at the time.

The release stated Burbridge reported the incident to the Fairfax County Police Department.

Here’s more from Bishop Burbridge:

Father Mould has expressed deep contrition for his actions, and he accepts that there will be serious and severe consequences for them.  

The Diocese of Arlington is fully committed to a zero-tolerance policy related to sexual abuse of minors. Any such incident is a grave sin and a profound betrayal of trust. I express my heartfelt regret to the individual who was harmed by Father Mould’s actions. As is the case with any instance of sexual abuse of a minor, I have ensured that the counseling services of our Victim Assistance Coordinator are available to anyone who may need them.

The Diocese encourages anyone who knows of any misconduct or abuse on the part of any cleric or employee of the Diocese to report it to the Virginia Attorney General hotline (VirginiaClergyHotline.com) and local police, and also to contact the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at (703) 841-2530.  

I realize that this information is difficult for you to receive. While justice and a commitment to the protection of children and young people make these actions prudent and necessary, it also brings me sadness to know the impact they have on your community. 

Mould has since resigned as Pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church and currently holds no church office. He is also barred from practicing priesthood, according to a statement by the Diocese.

File photo

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A group of Muslims who live and work in Reston hope to open a permanent prayer space before Ramadan, the month of fasting, begins in early May. It will be located on the second floor of an existing building.

Organizers behind the Reston Islamic Center said the mosque serves a critical need: the closest mosque in the area is roughly 20 minutes away. For several years, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (1441 Wiehle Avenue) has served as a satellite location for Friday prayers. The site is one of several set up by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (46903 Sugarland Road) in Sterling — which will continue operating and is a separate initiative from the new mosque. Currently, there is no dedicated space in the area to offer the five daily prayers that are central to the religion.

The new location is opposite Reston Town Center at 11701 Bowman Green Drive, which is also home to a church on the ground floor, according to organizers. They hope the center will make offering prayer easy for RTC-goers and local Muslims.

In Northern Virginia, we have seen the Muslim community grow and the [mosques] grow with it. For Reston, however, we have yet to reach that point,” an organizer told Reston Now. Due to the busy nature of this area… we want to form a space for families, children, and individuals to be able to get a break from that lifestyle and get back to learning the [religion],”

Paperwork and permitting is underway. The group set up a LaunchGood campaign to raise $10,000. So far, $6,419 has been raised to finance the effort. The group hopes that donations from mosque-goers will sustain the mosque over the next couple of years. 

Photo via Reston Islamic Center

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United Christian Parish - RestonA coalition of faith-based organizations will put on a conference Saturday in the effort to help build understanding between communities.

The Social Justice & Peace Conference, hosted by United Christian Parish (11508 North Shore Drive), will include workshops on how people from different religious backgrounds can support immigrants, the trans community, environmental justice and more.

The event’s keynote speaker will be Dr. B. Chris Dorsey, president of Higher Education & Leadership Ministries. He will speak on “A Social Justice Paradigm for Building and Sustaining Authentic Community.”

Organizations participating in the conference will include Higher Education & Leadership Ministries, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Interfaith Partners for Justice, Unitarian Universalist Church, All Dulles Area Muslim Society, Equality Virginia, Washington Plaza Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. Christian Church and National City Christian Church.

“In light of recent events, it seems more important than ever for people to come together to discuss and work together for social justice,” said James Dean, an organizer of the event. “We will not agree on all of the issues, but we can find common ground and we can work together to advance justice, peace and inclusion.”

Advance registration is encouraged, but on-site registration will also be available at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. A concert by UCPraise! will start the event. For more information, contact Dean at 571-830-8730 or [email protected].

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