There are a million ways I could start this article. I could open with a personal story, a reflection on the years I spent in public education, explaining my absences to my teachers over and over again. I could begin with the frustration and disappointment I felt this summer when I realized my junior year of college also began on the highest Jewish holiday of the year. I could have started this piece with a statistic about the number of Jewish students that attend Wesleyan (20-22%) in an attempt to illustrate the scope of people that this impacts. While any of these could have been an effective way to begin this article, the one feeling that stands out to me the most is the deep burn of the very fact that I even feel the need to put these thoughts down on paper.
While Judaism has many holidays, arguably the most important are the high holy days: Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (a somber day of atonement and forgiveness). They fall in September, and they’re roughly ten days apart. This year, the Jewish New Year began at sunset on Monday, September 6, 2021, and ended at nightfall on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Yom Kippur begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 15, 2021, and ends at nightfall on Thursday, September 16, 2021. For Jews all around the world, these holidays are a time to reflect, gather, mourn, atone, celebrate, and enjoy the community that we have worked so hard to preserve. While many Jews don’t attend services regularly, these holidays provide an opportunity for us to come together and connect with our culture. On Yom Kippur, many Jews choose to fast (refrain from eating or drinking) from sundown to sundown and celebrate the end of the holiday with a meal, the break-fast. Some Jews will spend the entire day in services.
I can’t remember the last time I participated in celebrating either of these holidays without feeling anxiety about missing days of school. Even as a high school student in Washington, D.C., where there’s a significant Jewish population (nearly 300,000 in 2017), I was never given the day off for either of these holidays. Only a few miles away, my peers that attended Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland were always granted these days off, a fact that always left a bitter taste in my mouth. If I missed school for services, I spent days playing catch-up to try and keep on track with my non-Jewish peers. While I was never explicitly told I shouldn’t attend services, I was never fully supported by my schools to celebrate without the threat of falling behind. Wesleyan, which prides itself on values of inclusivity and diversity, unfortunately also falls into this category.
There are enough Jewish students that attend Wesleyan that the University shouldn’t have started classes during Rosh Hashanah, and should have allowed students the day off on September 16th. Many Jewish students next week will be fasting, and should not be expected to attend class, complete assignments, or participate in sports. At the very least, the University should have mandated that assignments given during these days would be either not required or be allowed a grace period of more than a day to complete. While Jewish students were encouraged to be in touch with their professors about the holidays, the burden of responsibility once again has been placed upon students to explain and apologize for their absence, even though the University informed professors that they could not drop students for missing classes during the Jewish holidays.
“Choosing between your religion and identity and academics is an incredibly stressful and difficult experience, especially for new students,” wrote members of the Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC) Board to Jewish students.
Why force students to choose at all, especially when the University is beyond aware of the distress this causes Jewish students?
“Some [Jewish students] will reluctantly go to class but feel conflicted that they have been made to choose between ‘getting into the class’ and authentically practicing their religion,” Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nicole Stanton wrote in an email to faculty.
Professors accommodate Jewish students year after year, but on a college campus where this impacts roughly 600-700 students, I would expect a more significant level of effort to encourage students to engage in their cultures and identities without fear, discomfort, or even the task of having to express their continued excitement about a course to a professor.
Here’s what I propose: while I wish I didn’t even have to find ways to justify giving the Jewish community this space, next year, let’s encourage the University to ensure that classes (especially the first week of them) do not fall on these dates. I love being Jewish, and I love being part of the Jewish community on this campus. One of my absolute favorite parts of belonging to such a warm, welcoming group of people is bringing my non-Jewish peers to participate in holidays such as these in order to learn more about Judaism and our culture. Rather than create an environment that continues to put Jews at odds with their values, the University administration should allow all students, Jewish or not, these days off to celebrate and reflect. This would allow Jewish students to practice these holidays however they see fit, sans the anxiety of a choice many in this community have always been forced to make and push Wesleyan to learn, change, and grow. Shana Tova, and a sweet new year to all.
Talia Zitner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org