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Morning Notes

Clothing Stores to Fill Former L.L. Bean — The now-closed L.L. Bean at Tysons Corner Center will be divided into smaller parts, including a two-story store for the fast fashion chain Primark. Plans indicate that Old Navy and Lululemon Athletica will also relocate to new spaces, leaving about 10,000 square feet left for other tenants. [Washington Business Journal]

Firefighters Flock to Woodson High School — “An early morning fire on damaged at least one building in Fairfax County Public Schools’ Woodson Complex off of Main Street on the eastern border of Fairfax City on Sunday. The complex is home to the school district’s Office of Facilities Management, which houses FCPS’ central operations, grounds operations, receiving, and food service.” [Patch]

FCPS Recognizes More Religious Holidays — The Fairfax County School Board approved a calendar for the 2022-2023 school year that designates Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, and Orthodox Good Friday as student holidays. The year will start on Aug. 22, and Veterans Day is also now a student holiday and staff work day. [FCPS]

Tysons-Based ID.me Partners with IRS — “You’ll soon have to prove your identity to a Virginia-based security company called ID.me in order to file a return, check tax records, or make payments on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website. Your old username and password credentials–if they still work–will stop working in the summer of 2022.” [Fast Company]

GMU Changes COVID-19 Vaccine Policy — George Mason University students are now “strongly encouraged,” rather than required, to get vaccinated against COVID-19 after new Attorney General Jason Miyares said on Friday (Jan. 28) that state universities can’t mandate the vaccine without enabling legislation. About 96% of the university’s students are vaccinated. [The Washington Post]

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A McLean resident who ran a religious mentorship institute out of his home allegedly sexually assaulted at least two children involved in the program, the Fairfax County Police Department reported today (Wednesday).

According to the news release, detectives from the department’s Major Crimes Bureau Child Abuse Squad arrested 75-year-old Antonio Perez-Alcala Monday evening (Nov. 1) at 2001 Great Falls Street, where he lived and operated the Secular Institute Stabat Mater.

Perez-Alcala has been charged with nine counts of aggravated sexual battery and is currently being held without bond at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.

According to the FCPD, detectives learned on Oct. 28 that a child had told an adult that they were sexually assaulted by a leader of Stabat Mater.

“Detectives determined Antonio Perez-Alcala owned the McLean home where he operated the Secular Institute,” police said in the news release. “Juveniles attended private mentoring sessions, often in Perez-Alcala’s bedroom. The victim was sexually assaulted during the private sessions.”

Police identified a second victim through a preliminary investigation that led them to obtain an arrest warrant for Perez-Alcala.

There could be additional victims, as Perez-Alcala had held various religious positions in Northern Virginia since the mid-1990s, the FCPD says.

Since the mid-1990s, Perez-Alcala held various positions throughout the Northern Virginia area where he had contact with young members of our community. Detectives are asking anyone with information about this case or believe Perez-Alcala had inappropriate contact with a child to please call our Major Crimes Bureau at 703-246-7800, option 3.

Perez-Alcala was affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Arlington from 1994 to 2008 in a non-ordained capacity. Detectives are working with the Catholic Diocese of Arlington to determine if any additional victims may have been impacted.

The FCPD accepts anonymous tips through Crime Solvers by phone (1-866-411-8477), text (“FCCS” plus tip to 847411), and online. Tipsters can receive cash rewards of $100 to $1,000 if their information leads to an arrest.

Stabat Mater is an all-male group that focuses on “the formation of young people toward integrating the spiritual with the secular” and is part of the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes.

According to the Secular Institutes website, members commit to a life of “poverty, chastity and obedience” and work to spread Christian teachings through charity and gospel. The practice is part of the Catholic Church, but members can be either clergy or laypersons.

The U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to a 2016 article from the Arlington Catholic Herald, Perez-Alcala got involved with Stabat Mater in the 1960s and was assigned to the D.C. area in 1993. At that time, there were four men in residence at the McLean Stabat Mater.

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

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 Tysons Reporter. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate, you know, 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 criticism from some 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, like, 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 Tysons Reporter:

“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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A collection of local religious groups called Tysons Interfaith has created a new website to provide information about places to worship in the Tysons area, community service opportunities, and other resources.

Tysons Interfaith President Bill Larson announced the website’s launch yesterday (Tuesday), calling the new platform at tysonsinterfaith.org “a community service for people who live and work in the Tysons area.”

“Since there is currently no physical space available for worship or spiritual practice in Tysons, Tysons Interfaith is creating a virtual space where people can learn of public services available, plug in to their personal faith tradition, or explore options for their own spiritual growth or public service,” Larson said in a news release.

Formed in 2013, Tysons Interfaith describes itself as a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing “the principles of diversity, mutual respect, compassion, and ethical engagement” by providing a network of resources, advocating for equity, and serving as a platform for dialogue between groups from different religions.

Participating houses of worship include the St. Thomas Episcopal Church of McLean, the McLean Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Temple Rodef Shalom, the McLean Islamic Center, McLean Bahai, and the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, among others.

According to its new website, Tysons Interfaith came into being because local faith communities realized that there are no houses of worship located directly within the boundaries of Tysons.

“While we recognize the challenge of fitting houses of worship into a plan for a contemporary city, we are also convinced that those within Tysons would be well-served and their quality of life enhanced by the presence of and ministries provided by a variety of faith communities,” the organization says.

Tysons Interfaith initially focused on implementing service projects and providing volunteer support for local philanthropic events, but its mission evolved last year to also include social justice advocacy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s racial justice protests.

The new website features a map of faith communities in the area surrounding Tysons, a guide to communities offering virtual worship services, and a calendar of upcoming events. There is also information on local volunteer opportunities, nonprofits, and Fairfax County social support services.

“By working together, we have learned that people of different faith practices and spiritual traditions share many values and enjoy working together to better our community,” Larson said. “We invite congregations, groups, and individuals to join in this unique opportunity to build a vibrant Tysons community that is welcoming for all.”

Photo courtesy Tysons Partnership

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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,” Anderson wrote in a statement. “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.”

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,” Brabrand said. “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.”

But the decision drew concern from many local and area religious groups. In a joint statement, the 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,” the statement reads. “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 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. Read More

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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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The Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna raised more than $2,600 in donations with the drive-thru Nativity that it held on Dec. 19.

Patti Boerger, the Holy Comforter’s director of childcare, says the funds will be allocated to local food, shelter, and support services throughout the coming year.

Situated on Beulah Road, the Episcopal church typically stages a retelling of the Nativity — the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth — during its Christmas Eve services, but staff members knew continuing with that tradition would be ill-advised while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

While Virginia has not imposed mandatory capacity limits on religious services, the Virginia Department of Health warns that such gatherings present a risk for increasing the spread of the novel coronavirus, and faith organizations are encouraged to offer virtual or drive-in options instead of in-person services.

The Holy Comforter canceled several of the family activities it usually organizes during the holiday season, including events for making Advent wreaths and gingerbread houses. Church staffers came up with the idea of a free drive-thru live Nativity as a way to make up for those cancellations.

“We shifted gears at our staff meeting and asked ourselves what we could do differently,” Holy Comforter Rector Jon Strand said. “…The live drive-thru Nativity allows all ages to be safe in their vehicles and celebrate the glory of Christ’s birth.”

The Nativity featured costumed volunteers and live animals arranged in six scenes around the church’s parking lot. It lasted from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

The Holy Comforter was not the only church in the Tysons area to pivot to a drive-thru Nativity.

Patch reported on Dec. 15 that a similar event hosted by the McLean Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attracted an estimated 3,000 attendees over two nights. Donations went to the Share of McLean food bank run by the McLean Baptist Church.

Photo by Zachary Conroy/ImagesforGood.org

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Ramadan is underway, and worshipers in the Tysons area are adapting so they can still celebrate while social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are in place.

The month of fasting and communal prayer celebrates the time of year when God was said to reveal to the Prophet Muhammad the Qurʾān, Islam’s holy book. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are foregoing traditional in-person community dinners and prayer services at mosques.

Religious leaders and volunteers from both the privatized Aga Khan Council and the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, which is a public mosque, told Tysons Reporter that they are encouraging worshipers to stay home with their families this year and celebrate using digital methods.

Ramadan began on April 23 and will end on May 32. The religious holiday is considered one of the holiest months for the Islamic faith and involves “intense spiritual rejuvenation,” according to the Islamic Networks Group.

Dar Al-Hijrah, which is located in the outskirts of Falls Church, is struggling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Saif Rahman, the director of public works and government affairs for the center.

“We were hit pretty hard,” he said.

The first weekend in March was when the center was scheduled to host its fundraising dinner and also the same weekend places of worship were shut down around the area, he said. The center lost roughly 15- 20% of its yearly funding, he said.

“This meant that the 4,000 people who gather for Friday prayers could not gather for the first time in our history,” the website said.

Still, during this time Rahman said the center feels obligated to help the community in time of need, especially during Ramadan. Despite the lack of funding, the mosque is feeding hundreds of families of all faiths each Thursday, according to Rahman. The center is actively seeking donations and details can be found online.

Dar Al-Hijrah is also providing Iftar meals for the elderly and people who are incarcerated. As part of the Ramadan ceremony, Iftar meals are usually served with family and the extended community to mark the end of fasting for the day.

This year, instead of serving meals together in a community space, Rahman said volunteers organized a drive up and drop off system for the food.

“Ramadan is a time communities come together,” he said. “That physical connection may not be there, but we are trying to keep that spiritual connection through the means available to us. “

Going forward, Rahman said that the end of Ramadan will be among the hardest time for the families and really “hit home.” He compared the end of Ramadan to Christmas dinner, adding that it will become especially difficult and sad when people cannot be around their larger communities and support systems.

The mosque is encouraging people to touch base with family and friends through digital software.

For people interested in at-home prayer services, they can tune into prerecorded sessions on Dar Al-Hijrah‘s website.

Meanwhile, the McLean Islamic Center is a virtual program, with nightly Zoom sessions during Ramadan.

“While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will prevent us from being together physically, we can however connect in remarkable ways virtually,” according to the center’s website.

The Aga Khan Council, a private institution of worship that has a location in Falls Church, is offering free workshops for its members during Ramadan, volunteer Zak Karim said. Though the center doesn’t offer religious ceremonies, he said that the group’s leaders are encouraging virtual connection with friends and family.

The staff at their Jamat Khana, a place of worship for Shia Ismaili Muslims, is also encouraging people to pray at home with their families and engage in spiritual activities such as yoga.

“It’s about how healthy eating, healthy choices, cooking classes and then more of the educational meaning — learning how art and culture — intersect with one’s ability to contemplate thought,” Karim said.

Photo via Masjid Pogung Dalangan /Unsplash

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