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Since 2017, I have been teaching a First-year Writing Seminar listed under the Jewish Studies program titled Jews on Film: Visible and Invisible. The first time I offered the course during the fall semester, when we arrived at the class right before Rosh Hashana I said, “is anyone doing anything to celebrate Rosh Hashana?” My students, almost to a person, said, “we’re taking prelims.”
In my own classes, I never ask who is Jewish, but students tend to self-identify. Every semester, more than half of the students in the class identify as Jews. Of course, there are many ways of being Jewish, which means there are many ways of recognizing Jewish holidays. My goal in this piece is to provide readers who may not know much about the fall holidays with some sense of the academic and emotional impact these holidays have on students—especially First-year students.
Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year—is celebrated in early Fall, usually in September. (The Jewish calendar follows a lunar calendar: dates float relative to the Gregorian calendar). In 2021, the holiday began at sundown on September 6. This was unusually early. In 2022, the holiday began at sundown on September 25: on the late side. Rosh Hashana is traditionally a two-day holiday, although some sects celebrate only the first day. Yom Kippur always falls ten days after the start of Rosh Hashana. In 2022, Yom Kippur ran from sundown on October 4 to sundown on October 5.
Observant Jews spend considerable time on all three days in the synagogue. In addition, those who are strict observers of Shabbat—the sabbath—follow the same rules on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they follow on Shabbat. Work of all kinds is forbidden on these days: for strict observers this includes riding in or driving a car, turning on a computer, and writing.
Most American Jews are not as strict in their observance. But there are plenty of people who attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur even if they never set foot in a synagogue during the rest of the year.
Then there’s the fast. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally abstain from eating or drinking from sundown to sundown. In practice, this amounts to a fast of about 26 hours. If someone is attending services on Yom Kippur eve and during the day on the holiday, they have to eat a big meal before going to services, then try to manage without food (or water) until services end the following evening. On Yom Kippur eve, my family sat down to dinner at 4:45 pm, dressed for services. We got up from the table in time to put food away and get to services that started at 6:15. The closing service the next day began at 6:15: the fast officially ended at 7:22 pm.
The combination of fasting and attending services for much of the day is exhausting. Even if one did not consider doing homework a violation of the holiday, anyone who observed the holiday with some combination of services and fasting would find schoolwork exceptionally challenging. It’s hard to read textbooks or solve problem sets when one has participated in several hours of services and hasn’t eaten in eighteen hours.
As I hope the narrative so far has made clear, holiday observance and school obligations fall somewhere between challenging and incompatible. Students for whom strict observance is non-negotiable have to find ways to make up the work they miss. Students for whom observance may be flexible—the majority—will have to make difficult choices. For some students, these choices may come as something of a shock to the system.
Cornell draws heavily from New York State: this is particularly true of the statutory colleges. Most people in New York state live in or near New York City: whether in the city itself or in the populous suburbs on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. Metro New York has the highest percentage of Jewish residents of any region in the country. Metro Tel Aviv is the only metropolitan region in the world with a larger number of Jewish residents than Metro New York. Public school districts in New York City and many of the municipalities surrounding the City are closed on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. (This accommodates not only Jewish students, but Jewish teachers and school employees).
When students arrive in college, they have many decisions to make about time management. Students who are used to observing the fall Jewish holidays have to choose between observance and keeping up with their work. This means considering the potential consequences of missing three days of classes in a ten day period—and then playing catch up on all the homework they missed. If exams are scheduled, the decision is even more acute.
To add one more layer: Rosh Hashana is often a time for festive meals with family, friends, and extended family; breaking the fast at the end of Yom Kippur is often a social event. As family events, these holidays are analogous to Christmas and Easter: when classes are never scheduled. Holidays are almost always scheduled on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur—or both. Missing family time may add a layer of homesickness to the stew of difficult decision making many students wrestle with.
What can FWS instructors do to support these students?
First, and most important, provide reasonable accommodations. Recognize that on the holidays, students are not just missing classes. They may find it difficult or impossible to do work on those days. Make it possible for them to catch up without penalty.
Second, recognize that, as we say so often, a student’s FWS is likely their smallest class. First-year students in many fields take a steady diet of large, exam driven classes. The small size of the class and the face-to-face student/teacher relationships in writing seminars will probably make it easier for students and instructors to negotiate accommodations.
Third, recognize that students may face a complex stew of emotions at this time of year. Before starting college, holidays may have involved some combination of religious ritual and family tradition. Academic considerations were likely negotiated at the family level. Students may have gone to schools where everyone has the day off. Students now need to make decisions on their own. Whatever they decide, they are likely to feel a sense of loss. In addition, for the first time, they may be away from family during a season when they are using to celebrating together.
Finally, recognize that the mounting stresses of time and academic pressure are compounded, for these students, by another layer of stress that is likely to be invisible, but is real nonetheless.