Diwali poised to be a school holiday in New York City
By By Madina Touré,2023-06-02
NEW YORK — State lawmakers are making a renewed push at the behest of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community to get a school holiday in New York City for Diwali, the festival of lights.
The bill’s sponsors at the state Capitol said they are hopeful they can get the measure approved before the end of next week when the six-month session ends, saying its passage would illustrate the community’s growing political and cultural influence across New York.
The bill received the key backing last month from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who said in a statement that the Assembly intends to pass legislation to observe Lunar New Year and Diwali as holidays in New York state before they leave Albany. He also said they’d continue discussions with stakeholders “as to how this affects the school year calendar.”
Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar — the first Hindu American and first South Asian American woman elected to state office in New York — said the bill would remove “Anniversary Day,” which dates back to the 1800s and honors the first Christian Sunday schools founded in Brooklyn so that it can be replaced with Diwali.
If the bill is passed, Mayor Eric Adams would be able to designate Diwali as a school holiday for the more than 200,000 city residents who celebrate it. The bill was first introduced in 2021 and reintroduced in October 2022 .
“I’m proud to say my Assembly bill has over 41 co-sponsors in the Assembly, so it has massive support,” Rajkumar said in an interview. “So there's a widespread support for this; there’s a huge appetite for the holiday. It’s so incredible and historic … these past few months seeing the whole state come together and speak with one voice to say that we need to have a Diwali school holiday in New York City.”
Sen. Joseph Addabbo, the Senator sponsor, said he doesn’t believe his conference would have any objections.
“We are discussing, but expect the bill to pass before the end of session,” Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, told POLITICO.
The bill and its potential approval has been years in the making. Adams had pledged to try to make Diwali a school holiday a day after he was elected in November 2021, trying to make good on a push for the holiday during the de Blasio administration.
In early October, advocates and parents expressed concerns about the fact that it still did not occur and put pressure on him to deliver on his promise.
That month, Rajkumar and Adams announced a city-state partnership to make Diwali a school holiday. Michael Mulgrew, who heads the city’s teachers union, also signaled his support .
“I’ve been publicly supportive of state legislation that would allow for the New York City public schools to acknowledge and observe Diwali,” schools Chancellor David Banks said during a virtual press conference on legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday last week.
When de Blasio was in office, organizations coordinated sending multiple letters asking him to recognize Diwali — which is celebrated by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and some Buddhist communities, typically in October or November — after he announced school holidays for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and for the Asian Lunar New Year.
They held rallies and press conferences and lobbied lawmakers, according to Aminta Kilawan-Narine, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
De Blasio said he would not recognize any more holidays due to the state’s requirement that schools provide at least 180 days of instruction.
“At the time, a lot of what was being told to advocates — including myself — was that … there wasn’t a demonstration of the amount of students in New York City that this holiday actually impacted, and that was problematic because we know how many students in the New York City public school system celebrate Diwali,” Kilawan-Narine said.
Kilawan-Narine said that last October, she was initially skeptical when she learned about a press conference Rajkumar was holding with Banks and Adams in Lower Manhattan on the bill, noting her “jadedness” came from years of promises that failed to deliver a holiday. The city has pointed to the 180-day requirement.
But she said Rajkumar being a Hindu elected official elevated the credence “of this sort of advocacy” and that it doesn’t hurt that Rajkumar is a close ally to Adams.
While she’s still taken aback that Adams “did not do this himself” without having to go through the legislative process and said it’s not a done deal “until it’s a done deal,” she said she is “a ton more optimistic” than she was several weeks ago.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, she said, has shown her commitment to Asian American Pacific Islander communities at large so she’d be shocked if she did not sign the bill and pointed to support from leadership in the Assembly and the Senate.
As to whether she’s optimistic Hochul will sign the bill, Rajkumar noted Hochul hosted the first-ever gubernatorial Diwali celebration last year and that Hochul has told her that she is “excited” about the Diwali holiday.
Avi Small, a spokesperson for the governor, seemed to hint at her support.
“Governor Hochul proudly issued a statewide proclamation in honor of Diwali, hosted New York's first-ever gubernatorial Diwali celebration and will review legislation that passes both houses,” Small said in a statement.
Addabbo said he’s optimistic that the bill will pass and believes the bill is “fine as it is.”
“If there [are] amendments, we will have to act fast,” he said. “Hopefully there will be no amendments, and we can move this forward.”
The South Asian and Indo Caribbean community has been fighting for the holiday for more than 20 years. Lawmakers and advocates say the endeavor gained traction due to an increase in the number of Asian lawmakers in the state Legislature, and the community being more galvanized across New York — along with Adams’ support.
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said that at the end of January, lawmakers and advocates held a Diwali Lobby Day at the state Capitol to push for passage of Rajkumar’s bill — a rally that drew roughly 200 community members from different parts of the state.
“The political will is even stronger today for a whole host of reasons, one of them obviously being Jenifer is the first Hindu elected official Assemblymember within the state itself, so that has given a big push,” Trivedi said. “But also I think what has happened is the community is much more organized now than it used to be, so connecting with political leaders, connecting with decision-makers, lawmakers of different types.”
Assemblywoman Grace Lee, co-chair of the New York Assembly’s Asian Pacific American Task Force, said she’s worked closely with Rajkumar on the bill to help get it done. She pointed to a historic number of Asian American legislators in the state Legislature — six in the Assembly and four in the state Senate.
“It’s a demonstration of what Asian Americans can do when they have a seat at the table and when they are able to use their voices to advocate for their communities, and I really feel that this year in particular, we have organized in an incredible way to make sure that our Pan-Asian communities are being heard at the state Capitol,” Lee said.
The Assembly Education Committee has not moved the bill yet. The committee’s chair, Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, said he was concerned about pushback from the Queens and Brooklyn delegation over removing “Anniversary Day.”
“Some members pointed to the historical significance of the bill, that it was a day where religious groups in Brooklyn had parades in their areas, and they were concerned about stopping that tradition, but other people said different and had no feeling whatsoever with the Brooklyn-Queens Day … and was not opposed to losing those days,” Benedetto said.
Benedetto said he personally supports the bill's goal of removing "Anniversary Day," but said it's up to the mayor and chancellor what holiday to institute. He expects his committee will move the bill some time before the end of session.
Sen. John Liu, who heads the Senate’s New York City Education Committee — which passed the bill earlier this year — said the conversations have been “very positive.”
“It's a good bill; it's a necessary bill; and I’m confident that it will pass the Senate,” Liu said.