Among other things, that means I celebrate holidays that most people can’t pronounce. That also means my holidays aren’t included on most calendars. As a student, I always had to inform my teachers of the days I’d be out for Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). I was lucky in that I never had to explain myself; my teachers were aware of a) the existence of my holidays and b) my need and right to miss class to practice my religion.
When I moved to Malaysia, I wasn’t allowed to be Jewish. I wasn’t able to practice my religion. I had to go to work over Rosh Hashanah because I wasn’t allowed to miss work without medical documentation; I certainly was not going to spend the holiday in a doctor’s office faking stomach cramps. Yom Kippur fell on a Saturday, and while I couldn’t go to synagogue, I could pray on my own.
Now that I’m in Singapore, I had (note the past tense) different expectations. Considering the amount of diversity here in Singapore, particularly the diversity in an international school with a student body from over 60 countries, I did not anticipate having trouble obtaining recognition of my religious rights and freedoms.
But I’m having trouble.
My school does not allow paid sick days until the fourth month of our contracts, which means that I can’t be sick and get paid until November 1. This is ridiculous for multiple reasons, but mostly because we work with kids, all of whom are sick right now. That aside, I checked with HR to see if I could take time off and be paid for religious reasons in the first three months of the school year. HR said no, but a colleague encouraged me to take the question to the superintendent. In what I think was a very well-worded email, I expressed my disappointed with HR’s response and explained how upsetting it is to choose between pay and adhering to religious principles. I went as far as to “respectfully ask for a reconsideration of this policy.” (I didn’t point out that we have Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays off, which probably covers 99% of staff.) The superintendent assured me he would discuss it with HR and get back to me.
Two days later, I got an email apologizing and saying that school was unable to adjust the policy because, in a multicultural environment, they did not want to be seen as favoring one religion over another.
I didn’t point out that they were doing exactly that simply by following the existing calendar.
I didn’t point out that this wouldn’t be an issue if the holidays fell later in the year when I could take paid sick days.
I didn’t point out that I am now being treated differently than other members of staff.
I didn’t point out any of that because there’s no point. School has clear made a decision, and that decision reflects who the people in charge are and what they seem valuable. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that the query is now on record and it might help someone else in the future. I do feel discriminated against and I do feel misunderstood. While I understand the need for consistency in HR policies, I also understand the need to treat everyone fairly.
Fair, however, does not always mean equal.