c/o Wesleyan Jewish Community

c/o Wesleyan Jewish Community

Given the onset of the new academic year, students are currently in the midst of settling into their classes and schedules. For Jewish students, however, this transition has proven to be difficult: the High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah, otherwise known as the Jewish New Year, directly overlaps with the first day of classes held on Tuesday, Sept. 7. The intersection has yielded both discontentment among many Jewish students and a campus-wide response put forth by University administrative members.

Rosh Hashanah, lasting this year between Monday, Sept. 6 and Wednesday, Sept. 8, is often characterized as an opportunity to embrace newness. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the Jewish year, Tishre, and commences a 10-day period of prayer before Yom Kippur, a separate High Holiday recognizing atonement. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which operates on a solar scale, the Jewish calendar functions on a lunar scale, meaning that the moon cycles mark the beginning of each month. Therefore, the Jewish calendar runs distinct from the University’s academic calendar, enabling the possibility of this overlap. 

The calendars are proposed and drafted in groups of six years. In fall 2019, for example, the University implemented and finalized academic calendars until summer 2025, and so on. According to federal regulations, each semester must contain fifteen weeks of academic activity, including thirteen weeks of classes. A separate parameter outlines that the academic activity for the current semester must conclude by Wednesday, Dec. 22, when University students go on Winter Break. 

The academic calendar is produced through a detailed and lengthy process between University Registrar Anna Van Der Burg and the University’s Educational Policy Committee (EPC). The process starts with Van Der Burg, who drafts and submits initial versions to the EPC. After an extensive period of back-and-forth between the EPC, who provide revisions, and Van Der Burg, the faculty vote to approve the calendars. Finalizing the calendars can take up to a year, primarily due to the thorough revision process. Despite these extensive conversations, calendar for the 2021-2022 academic year contains such an overlap.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Rick Culliton sent an email to students detailing where the University stands in relation to this overlap. Culliton advised students to reach out to faculty if they were planning not to attend the first day of class. Unlike previous semesters, Culliton noted that the University asked faculty not to drop students who attended Rosh Hashanah services that day. In addition, members of the administration, including Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nicole Stanton, notified the faculty of the University’s plans to navigate the issue. 

“Memos addressing the conflict were sent to the campus community in order to allow them to make arrangements that work for as many people as possible,” University Communications wrote in an email to The Argus. “In this case, [the] faculty was alerted ahead of time and asked that they not penalize students who observe this important holiday and choose to not attend class.” 

Many students, however, deemed this response as unsatisfactory. Dotan Appelbaum ’22, the Senior Board Advisor of the Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC), expressed dissatisfaction with Culliton’s email, mainly due to its seeming lack of respect or care. 

“The email to the students was particularly frustrating to me because it was a very short email from Dean Rick that didn’t express any sympathy, didn’t take accountability, didn’t apologize, and instead was a very cold statement,” Appelbaum said. “The most we got out of the email is that the administration had asked professors not to remove people from their classes if they don’t show up on the first day, and I do not feel [it] was strong enough to put Jewish students at ease.” 

In addition, some students find the decision entirely contradictory to the tolerant and expressive campus community the University attempts to foster. 

“I was concerned and struck with anxiety, but I was not in the least bit surprised,” WJC Jewish Community Coordinator Sarah Backer ’22 wrote in an email to The Argus. “I was honestly sad that the University failed to live up to its commitment to being an inclusive and tolerant environment for students of all religious backgrounds.” 

Despite the frustrations, many recent WJC efforts have emphasized building an inclusive environment for first-year students, approximately 110 of whom identify as Jewish. According to WJC Limmud (Jewish Learning) Kesher Abby Fisher ’23, the overlap possibly provides barriers for these students to adjust to campus life.

“I think as a board, we were concerned about first-year students whose first interaction with professors is going to be ‘Hey, I can’t make it to the first class, please don’t drop me from your class… I have to go to services because it’s one of the most important days of the Jewish calendar,’” Fisher ’23 said.

WJC Board Members expressed heightened disdain stemming from how the University failed to act comprehensively and sensibly as other schools across the country. In May 2021, Columbia changed its semester start date, circumventing the issue entirely. Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Madison made a detailed statement to their campus community, expressing sympathy to their student body and instructing faculty members how to best navigate this issue. What’s more, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s email addressed growing anti-Semitism and how the decision poses a deeper impact. To Fisher, the University’s response was lackluster relative to those from its counterparts.

“Wesleyan’s [response] was like, ‘Here’s the drop/add calendar, caveat: we urge professors not to drop students from their classes if they missed during these days,’” Fisher said. “So completely putting the onus on students rather than acknowledging that as an administration, they screwed up. Immediately, I was just kind of jealous of how other schools were handling it.” 

There has been much student pushback in lieu of the discrepancy. Members of the WJC Board realized the intersection of classes and Rosh Hashanah in May 2021. After commencement in spring 2021, the WJC Board reached out to University President Michael Roth ’78 and other administrative members asking for classes to be recorded and to institute a no-questions-asked policy for the second and third day of classes. The WJC Board and the Administration traded emails back and forth throughout the summer, leaving the WJC and Jewish students at large unsure of answers or solutions. University Communications confirmed the exchange of these emails. 

“We were hoping that there would be a stronger, ‘we have told faculty that they cannot drop students for missing the first day of class,’ or, ‘we have asked faculty to record the first day of class,’ these [were the] sorts of things that we were hoping to see, but that we didn’t get,” Appelbaum said. “That ended up putting us in a bit of a rush to figure out what to do at that point.” 

To Backer, the overlap and subsequent response reflects a wider trend in how the University administration handles religious life on campus. 

“Wesleyan as an institution seems to have a strange anti-religious bias,” Backer wrote. “Religious student groups are not given the attention or funding they deserve, which was especially clear with the chaplain situation the MSA had to contend with last year. Part of being a progressive, open-minded, inclusive institution—as Wesleyan professes itself to be—is to support religious student groups.” 

Appelbaum echoes Backer’s sentiments, expressing that the issue is emblematic of a common institutional bias against Jewish students specifically. 

“I was simultaneously outraged and entirely unsurprised,” Appelbaum said. “I have seen how the University does not seem to care about making this a place where Jewish students, especially observant students, feel like they are able to be full parts of the community, so that was unsurprising but still infuriating to see that happen.” 

Oliver Cope can be reached at ocope@wesleyan.edu.

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