Jewish Students Navigate Starting Classes in Between High Holiday Celebrations

The High Holidays are the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. Observed ten days apart, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fall during the academic year, usually in September or October. Jewish students, often not accommodated by their school systems, are then left to either attempt to hold up both their religious and academic obligations or sacrifice one to the other. 

In order to observe the holidays, many Jewish people attend synagogue services during the days of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and refrain from doing any sort of work on those dates. For students, this means not attending class. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Zoe Myers-Bochner ʼ23 explained that she is very passionate about her faith and attends Friday night Shabbat services whenever possible. 

“I am pretty strict about doing something for Shabbat every week. That’s like going to services on Friday night or if I can’t go, trying to do something to observe by myself and also on Saturday, trying to keep it a little bit more chill. I never do homework on Friday nights. That’s a big thing for me,” she said.

The High Holidays, therefore, are important to Myers-Bochner, and she celebrates over the course of two days for each holiday. 

“From Erev Rosh Hashanah, which is sundown, the night before Rosh Hashanah, I pretty much observed and didn’t do any homework or anything school related from that night … So that was Monday night to Wednesday at sundown,” she stated. 

Myers-Bochner explained that though she celebrates both holidays over the course of two days, not all Jewish people do so.

“I observed two days of Rosh Hashanah. A lot of people here only do one … but I’d always grown up doing two and then with Yom Kippur I did the same thing. So, from Wednesday at sundown to Thursday, I wasn’t back from [synagogue] until like, 9:30 p.m. on Thursday,” Myers-Bochner said. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Simon Herz ʼ23 explained that he also spent Tuesday, September 7 celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Thursday, September 16 observing Yom Kippur, and did not attend class on those days.  

“Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are nine days apart, and I have two different Tuesday/Thursday classes, I missed them for Rosh Hashanah and I missed them again for Yom Kippur. And that would happen no matter where it falls. But, you know, missing the same class twice is difficult,” he said.

In an interview with The Phoenix, Naomi Horn ʼ22 expressed a similar experience missing class. 

“I think it was a little bit logistically complicated in the sense that three of my classes this semester are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I missed a Tuesday and Thursday. It’s just … there’s nothing really to stop me from becoming super behind on work,” she said.

In order to keep up with classwork, students have to ask for accommodations from their professors. Myers-Bochner spoke to her experience contacting professors. 

“My whole thing around the High Holidays is that I email all my professors and anyone that I have … an obligation to on that day and I’m like, ‘Hello, today is X High Holiday. I am not going to be in class …, but I’m willing to come in to talk to you, come in during office hours, do makeup work, whatever’ and then they normally tell me to come into office hours and then to do X amount of makeup work for the classes that I missed,” she stated.

Though professors do their best to accommodate, students are still behind on work. Horn’s classes began to assign larger quantities of work, which left her with not only her make-up work, but also the new assignments.

“This week is the first week that I had a paper due and problems sets due. And so, a lot of people in those classes had time to kind of like ramp up and like you know start things earlier or ease into the semester,” she said. “I’ve pretty much been behind the last two weeks. And so now in addition to getting those assignments going, I’m playing catch-up.”

Herz also found it difficult to do everything he needed to do for class, especially during the week of Yom Kippur. 

“For my Friday class, I have to prepare things with other people. Finding time to do that was difficult, particularly for the week with Yom Kippur because it was Wednesday night and then most of Thursday, I was not available. And then I needed to be ready for class on Friday with the whole group of people,” he explained.

Not all students found it difficult to navigate workload with observance. In an interview with The Phoenix, Neil Steinglass ʼ23 explained that he had an easier time balancing his classes with the High Holidays.

“I have two classes that I could have potentially missed. One of them was cancelled because it’s a Jewish studies class. So I only missed one class for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I did not especially need to be accommodated for that reason,” he said. “I’m very comfortable prioritizing taking care of myself and my religious practice over doing all of my readings.”

Horn spoke about the lack of routine caused by the ever-changing schedule she kept for her first few weeks of class. 

“I don’t have a routine at all. Like the first week of classes was the first week of classes, then I was missing a bunch of class, now I’m playing catch up,” she said.

Although Steinglass had no set routine due to the High Holidays and Fall semester beginning, he didn’t see it as a completely negative thing. 

“The upside of them being this early is that the not being on top of things due to the High Holidays just sort of became part of the not being on top of things because the semester had just started. On the other hand, I have yet to have a regular week of classes. So I still haven’t figured things out yet, but at least I don’t have two periods of having to figure things out.”

Classes weren’t the only things students missed: their extracurricular activities suffered as well. Herz missed multiple activities outside of class, from an RA meeting to play rehearsals. 

“I missed a chorus rehearsal, and I missed a Music 48 lesson. Oh and I missed … an RA meeting. And I had a second RA meeting that I had to reschedule and musical rehearsals,” he said.

Horn also had to miss or reschedule her obligations.

“I missed a lot of things actually. I had to move my first Writing Center shift. Luckily someone was able to swap with me, because it was the Wednesday night that Yom Kippur started,” she explained. “I’m also an econ TA, and I missed our help session that I run weekly with like another student or another TA. I did also send out an email trying to get someone to sub in for me, but no one was available so the other TA had to run it by herself.”

Horn also spoke about the lack of accommodations made by the college as a whole. 

“[The dean’s office does] send out at the beginning of each semester a list of every single significant … religious holiday for the main religious groups on campus, but they really don’t differentiate between how significant they are. I know for Jewish holidays they put things on there that are not insignificant holidays but ones that the vast majority … would go to class for.”

Myers-Bochner shared Horn’s sentiment, and explained what she wished Swarthmore would do to accommodate Jewish students.

“In an ideal world, we would have classes canceled on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur … I would just really appreciate just a general awareness of the High Holidays and … professors just being more understanding and saying things up front versus like me and other Jewish students are always having to go to them,” she said.

Herz also shared his memories about Swarthmore’s past support of Jewish students. 

“Sharples put out apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and that was very nice. That was very sweet. And I think last year they put out honey cake in addition to that, which is also very sweet,” he recalled. 

Unlike last year, Herz shared, students were able to break the Yom Kippur fast at Kehilah this year. 

Kehilah, Swarthmore’s organization of Jewish life on campus, has grown in recent years and brought dozens of Jewish students together to celebrate the High Holidays this year. 

“This year, students were able to get food at Kehilah after breaking the Yom Kippur fast; this has not been the case in previous years,” Herz said. “Last year Sharples actually did close before we were going to be breaking our fast so we all got food early…this year, Kehilah had bagels that we all ate.”

Myers-Bochner has been a part of Kehilah since she was a first year and has seen the organization grow over the years. 

“My freshman year we normally had like ten to fifteen people at Shabbat then sophomore year jumped to like 25. And then a lot of Shabbats this year we’ve had almost 40 people, which is really cool. And then we had over 50 at like Rosh Hashanah services. So it’s starting to become a really big group which is really cool to me,” she explained,

Horn, Herz, Myers-Bochner, and Steinglass are all involved with Kehilah, and Horn wishes that Swarthmore would do more to help the growing group. 

“We’re one of the biggest organizations that does things so regularly. We have weekly Shabbat dinners and services so we have people take turns cooking for 30 to 40 people … it’s not awesome that we have a very, very quaint small random kitchen in the basement of Bond, which we make the absolute most of, but it’s just not an efficient space for that many people,” Horn said. 

For Jewish students at Swarthmore, the High Holidays are not only about celebrating through service, but also about celebrating in a community, one that includes students of all backgrounds, sexualities, and genders. Nevertheless, navigating both academics and the High Holidays simultaneously continues to challenge Jewish students’ abilities to freely observe the holidays.

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