Academic Commitments and High Holidays Challenge Jewish Students

Each fall, Jewish people around the world observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holidays. These holidays mark the Jewish new year, and are a time of reflection and contemplation. For Swarthmore students, the High Holidays will fall right in the middle of midterms –– Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on September 29 and ends on the 30 or on October 1, depending on custom. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 8 and continues until nightfall on the 9. Because these holidays follow a lunar calendar, their dates on the Gregorian calendar differ each year.

The college does not mention academic accommodations for religious holidays in the official student handbook, though the college’s website says that Swarthmore encourages professors to avoid scheduling anything unavoidable on major holidays. 

Jordan Rothschild ’22 has midterm essays and exams scheduled around the High Holidays this year and has decided to miss class for Yom Kippur, although last year, he did not feel comfortable doing so. 

“Last year, I was overwhelmed by a class and felt it necessary to attend the scheduled lab, 18 hours or so into a fast, and it was a nightmare. I really don’t want that kind of pressure again this year interfering with my religious observance,” said Rothschild. He is, however, attending class on Rosh Hashanah. “If I didn’t have class around the high holidays, I would also be going to services on both days of Rosh Hashanah. I am a fairly observant person and need the spiritual space to pray and observe the new year, but it just isn’t always possible,” he said. 

“These are major holidays for which some students might be missing classes, athletic events, or exams, and for which we ask faculty and staff to avoid scheduling major events, exams, and due dates as much as possible.”

Joyce Tompkins, Swarthmore’s Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, says that the school has made progress on acknowledging religious holidays in her time on campus. 

“When I first arrived at Swat sixteen years ago, there was no acknowledgement of religious holidays at all –– they were not on the college calendar … Over the years as more students were asking, and religious identity became a recognized aspect of student diversity, we were successful in adding major religious holidays to the calendar. Along with this, faculty and staff became aware of the need to consider religious holidays and practices in both academic and co-curricular planning,” she wrote. 

The school now encourages faculty to accommodate religious observance, and supports the Interfaith center in making faculty aware of students’ needs. 

“…The Interfaith team sends a list of upcoming religious holidays to the Provost and the Dean at the start of each semester. We ask them to share this with faculty, staff and coaches, and encourage anyone with questions to reach out to one of us. In this message we also ask that students be given appropriate accommodations to support their observance of these holidays,” Tompkins wrote. 

Tompkins recognizes the difficulty that students often have when weighing academic and spiritual needs. 

“All three of us are available to support students who are balancing the need for religious observance with the academic demands at Swarthmore. We know this can be challenging, but we also know that spiritual practice is a foundational component of student wellness. We will work with any student to help them find ways to navigate Swarthmore in a way that is healthy and appropriate, and we are also available to educate faculty and staff in matters of religious practice and sensitivity,” she wrote. 

Swarthmore’s academic calendar does not provide students with time off for many holidays. Besides Thanksgiving break, Winter break (which allows students to be off for Christmas and New Years), and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, classes are held on federal and religious holidays that take place  during the academic year. Of course, students also do not have class during any holidays that might occur during summer, fall, or spring break. 

For many Jewish students, the upcoming holidays still conflict with scheduled midterms. Swarthmore’s Jewish Student Advisor, Rabbi Michael Ramberg, is confident that this timing will impact students’ decision making when it comes to missing class.  

“I have no doubt that the holidays falling during midterms will unfortunately result in students who would otherwise observe the holidays forgoing them to meet their academic obligations,” wrote Ramberg. 

Zoe Myers-Bochner ’22 explained that she is planning on missing class for both days of Rosh Hashanah as well as for Yom Kippur, and that she had to advocate for herself to arrange that. 

“I originally had two midterms scheduled for the day after Yom Kippur,” said Myers-Bochner. “That is problematic for me because Yom Kippur is typically spent fasting and in synagogue all day, which would not allow me to study properly for my exams. I talked to one of my professors about it and am taking her midterm the day before Yom Kippur, and I plan on talking to my other professor to work out a similar plan with him.” Myers-Bochner added that her professor was very understanding. 

Jake Chanenson ’21 is still deciding how much class he will miss for the High Holidays. In the past, he has missed class, but he says that it is always a challenge to catch up.  

“Even in my intro classes freshman year, it was an inconvenience to make up the material I missed when taking time off for the High Holidays. My weeks are pretty packed, so when I take two days off, it’s rather tricky to make up the missed work while still keeping up with the regular course load. As I take more advanced courses that ask more of me, I have found it harder and harder to make up what I have missed in a timely fashion. It’s certainly doable, just not very pleasant,” said Chanenson. 

Chanenson thinks that it would be easier to not have class on the High Holidays. 

“[If I didn’t have class], I would either go home and spend some time with my family or stay at school and run some high holiday based programming for Swarthmore’s Jewish community,” he said. “In my K-12 education we had those days off and it made a huge impact on my life. I was able to fully observe the high holidays without being stressed about all the work I need to make up. Honestly, I think that Swarthmore should take off for any major religious holiday. For those observing the holiday, they won’t feel pressured to work or attend class and for those who aren’t observing the holiday, it’s a day off.” 

Rabbi Michael Ramberg said that deciding whether to miss class is a personal choice. 

“Each person needs to figure this out for themselves. The High Holidays happen just once each year. If you think that by observing the holidays you might be able to maintain, strengthen, or discover a connection with life-giving, soul-nourishing aspects of the Jewish tradition, seizing the opportunity the holidays offer for self-scrutiny in the service of growth and renewal and individual and collective healing, I’d suggest that you figure out a way to miss class. Don’t assume that your professors (or coaches or supervisors) won’t be supportive —  ask them (and the sooner the better, to give them time to work with you to figure this out),” wrote Ramberg.  

Students from other religious backgrounds must also balance their religious and academic commitments. Muslim Student Association President, Tarzan MacMood ’20, said that he doesn’t remember a professor ever acknowledging an upcoming religious holiday. 

“I’ve never mentioned to a professor that I’m observing a holiday during the academic year, so I don’t have any personal experience with how professors handle holidays. During my freshman year, an important holiday fell on a school day. Prayer for the holiday is always in the morning, so I was able to attend prayer and then return to campus to attend classes,” he said. 

MacMood proposed a more straightforward solution than changing the school calendar to offer students days off for religious holidays. 

“I think it would be nice for professors to mention how they can support students a week or two before religious holidays. I think that would just break a major barrier where students are not comfortable taking time off from class to observe important holidays.” 

Religious observance is a personal choice, and different people have different sensibilities regarding classes and holidays. Students, however, are legally allowed to miss class when observing a religious holiday. If students would like further support around religious holidays, they can reach out to the Interfaith center and staff. Students have a wide variety of traditions and comfort levels with how to observe holidays, and without a clear college-wide policy, must navigate these complexities with individual professors. 

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