Celebrators of High Holidays find mixed spiritual support

Courtesy of Vassar Jewish Union via Facebook
Courtesy of Vassar Jewish Union via Facebook
Courtesy of Vassar Jewish Union via Facebook

For many students, adding on extracurric­ulars to their academic schedules can be very difficult to manage. For some, their spir­itual life is another element to balance. And sometimes all of these elements conflict.

Each year, the Dean of Studies Christopher Roellke sends out an email explaining how to anticipate observing a religious holiday, and yet there still might be some pressure in missing classes. With the recent Jewish holi­days that have occurred, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, many Jewish students and teachers must find a way to both stay academ­ically ontop of things all the while practic­ing their religion. It is especially hard when, as they did this year, the holidays tend to fall near each other. While famous athletes have been known to cancel games in order to cel­ebrate certain holidays, it is harder for Vassar students and faculty to pause their lives to properly devote themselves to their religious practices.

This year, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began Sunday evening on Sept. 13, and ended the following Tuesday. Traditionally, practitioners attend services to celebrate the new year.

Yom Kippur fell on the following weekdays of Tuesday, Sept. 22 and Wednesday, Sept. 23. On the first night of Yom Kippur, those who practice Judaism fast, and treat the following day as a Sabbath. Not everyone can afford to take the additional time off, however, when Rosh Hashanah just ended.

For Sukkot, which happened this weekend, they created a sukkah, or a booth, on the li­brary lawn to celebrate agriculture, among other things, and to eat under it.

The usual process to prepare for missing classes involves emailing professors ahead of time, where they will almost always provide extensions and extra office hours to accommo­date the students and allow them to participate in their religious duties.

Former Chabad President and Vassar Jew­ish Union (VJU) Executive Board member, Ian Snyder ’17, said on the justness of this policy, “I think they say that if you need to miss class because of religious duties, then you can. And I think that’s as fair as you can get.”

However, even with such options provided, there is still a hassle when it comes to miss­ing classes. The difficulty of being out of the academic loop for even a minuscule amount of time can have side effects, even when giv­en extensions. In addition, attending services and other practices takes up time from when a student could be working on homework or preparing for an exam.

President of VJU, Abby Johnson ’17, talked about some of the hardships in missing class­es for religious holidays. She said, “Even now, days after Yom Kippur has ended, I’m still feel­ing the effects of taking time from my daily life to go to services instead of doing my normal workload. Vassar can be a very difficult place to remove yourself from to focus on observing a holiday and I think we as a community could work harder at improving that.”

Celebrating these holidays can be more than just attending services. Yom Kippur is consid­ered the holiest day of the year and a day of atonement and repentance, reflecting on the sins or guilt one has felt, something that may not be possible for those who attend classes.

In an academic schedule where days off are for the time between semesters or government holidays, it sometimes is not enough to receive religious exemption from class. Johnson elab­orated on ways that the administration could support those who wish to practice. She said, “If professors could avoid scheduling big es­says or exams around those holidays, or realize that bringing food into class on Yom Kippur can be uncomfortable, I think it would make a world of difference. Even marking those dates as holidays on the syllabus might make stu­dents more comfortable.”

What is the proper way to acknowledge those students who choose to go to class while still participating in religious duties? The issue lies in trying to respectfully proceed in teach­ing classes. This is not an argument of political correctness, but rather an attempt to facilitate every persons’ needs.

Students are not the only people who have to maintain this balance of religious duty and academic duty. Chemistry Professor Leah Bendavid, who identifies as Orthodox Jewish, said that in anticipation of Yom Kippur, she re­scheduled her classes.

She explained, “The Sabbath is a day of rest during which I refrain from doing things that are considered in Jewish law as ‘work,’ which has been defined to include actions involving electricity, writing and driving a car, among other prohibitions.”

“There are certain Jewish holidays during the year that are Sabbath-like in which, in ac­cordance with Jewish law, observant Jews also refrain from doing these actions considered as ‘work.’” She continued, “Basically my goal is try my best to make it as low-impact on the students as possible.”

She went on, “I never cancelled class; I’ve always rescheduled class. And I also try to re­schedule office hours. For students who can’t make it to the rescheduled classes because it’s very hard to accommodate everyone’s sched­ules, I’ve prepared videos of lectures for them and have also offered to meet with them out of class to teach them the material one-one-one, just because I don’t want it to be a burden on my students at all.”

Bendavid, like Snyder, noted that Vassar’s policies on religious exemption are more than fair. “I’d like to add that as a new faculty at Vassar, I was really impressed by the consid­eration shown by the administration regarding the college’s policy on religious holiday obser­vance and academic commitments,” She said. “It’s great to be at a place that is so committed to embracing diversity, including religious di­versity.”

Despite some minor changes that could oc­cur, Vassar has a very accepting policy that allows for the religious freedom one needs to practice their faith.

The Administration of Religious and Spiri­tual Life works well with administration to ac­commodate upcoming Jewish holidays, while also maintaining a relationship with the Jew­ish student organizations, VJU and Chabad, to appeal to both sides and create a comfortable environment for students to practice their reli­gion while being a student at Vassar.

To describe the importance of observing re­ligious holidays, Snyder put it best, explaining, “There are some things more important than classwork. I feel that if you’re religious, your spiritual life would trump your academic life at times. I think you have to find a balance.”

One Comment

  1. The Jewish holidays are on the Jewish calendar. They always fall next to one another. It is not just “this year.”

    Yom Kippur has no “first night.” Yom Kippur begins, like all Jewish holidays, on the night of the preceding day, and ends the following evening. Traditionally, Jews fast for the entire time period, which lasts about 25 hours.

    Vassar is required, under state and federal antidiscrimination laws, to accommodate students with religious needs. It has always done so well, though I agree that it should generally mark the holidays on its general calendar if it does not already do so, instruct professors to avoid scheduling major deadlines during those times, and yes, ask professors to avoid eating in class on Yom Kippur out of respect to Jewish students who may be attending.

    Vassar should also encourage professors to record their classes on these days (and really, all the time), to ensure that students who cannot attend class can nevertheless get the benefit of the lecture.

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