Fall Holidays and Jewish Students

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Since 2017, I have been teaching a First-year Writing Seminar listed under Jewish Studies titled Jews on Film: Visible and Invisible. The first fall I offered the course, I asked, right before Rosh Hashana “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. More than half of the students who take the class identify as Jews. Of course, there are many ways of being Jewish, which means there are many ways of recognizing Jewish holidays. In this piece I hope to provide readers with some sense of the academic and emotional impact the Fall Jewish holidays have on students—especially First-year students.

All college students have challenging decisions to make about priorities and time management. Students who are used to observing the fall Jewish holidays almost always have to choose between observance and keeping up with their work. Most years, students need to weigh the potential consequences of missing as many as three days of classes in a ten day period—and then playing catch up on all the work they missed. (Fall 2023 will be easier than most: the only school day that will be fully occupied by a holiday will be Monday, September 25). If exams are scheduled on holidays, the decision can be even more freighted with anxiety. Prelim exams scheduled on or around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are often the first prelims of the semester: for first year students, they may be the first exams of their college careers.

During the remainder of this essay I hope to provide instructors—especially instructors of First-year writing seminars—with more information about when the holidays happen; how observance affects participation in academic commitments; and how instructors can accommodate and support their students.

When and how are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Observed?

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 about as early as it gets. In 2023, the holiday will begin at sundown on Friday, September 15: about average. Rosh Hashana is traditionally a two-day holiday (some groups celebrate only the first day). Yom Kippur falls ten days after the start of Rosh Hashana. In 2023, Yom Kippur will run from sundown on Sunday, September 24 to sundown on Monday, September 25.

Observant Jews spend considerable time in synagogue on all three days. In addition, those who are strict observers of Shabbat—the sabbath—follow Shabbat rules on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. 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 plenty of people who attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur 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. Fasting Jews will probably eat a big meal before going to services on Erev Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur eve), then try to manage without food (or water) until services end the following evening. On Sunday, September 24, my family will sit down to dinner at about 4:45 pm, dressed for services. We will get up from the table in time to get to a service that starts at 6:15. The closing service the following day will begin at 6:15 p.m. This year, the fast officially ends at 7:29 pm on Monday, September 25.

The combination of fasting and attending services for much of the day is exhausting. Even if one did not treat writing or using a computer as 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.

What is the impact of holiday observance on schoolwork?

By now it should be clear that students will find that it to be somewhere between challenging and impossible to fulfill both holiday observance and school obligations on these holidays. Students for whom strict observance is non-negotiable will need 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 a shock.

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 (which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut) 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).

To add one more layer: Rosh Hashana is often a time for festive family gatherings. 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: holidays when classes (and exams) are never scheduled. Classes are almost always scheduled on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or both. Missing family gatherings may add a layer of homesickness to the stew of difficult decision many Jewish students wrestle with. (Again, Fall 2023 will be easier than most semesters: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur both fall largely on weekends. This rarely happens).

What can FWS (and other) instructors do to support Jewish students?

First, and most important, instructors should provide reasonable accommodations. Recognize that on the holidays, students are not just absent from class. Students may find it difficult or impossible to do work on those days. Teachers should make it possible for students to catch up without penalty. (For more information about Cornell’s official policies on student accommodations, see the Dean of Faculty’s website: https://theuniversityfaculty.cornell.edu/the-new-faculty-handbook/6-policies-and-assistance/6-1-instruction/understanding-student-accommodations/ ).

Second, we often remind teachers that 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 class size and the face-to-face student/teacher relationships in writing seminars might make it easier for students and instructors to negotiate accommodations.

Third, recognize that Jewish students may face a complex stew of emotions at this time of year. Before starting college, the fall holidays likely involved some combination of religious ritual and family tradition. Academic considerations were probably negotiated at the family level. Before coming to Cornell, students from Metro New York or other municipalities with substantial Jewish populations may have attended schools that closed on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. (In 2022-23, for the first time, Ithaca City Schools were closed on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as well as on Diwali and Eid al Fitr. The ICSD calendar for 2023-24 acknowledges all of these holidays: schools are closed except when the holidays fall on weekends or during school breaks.)

New college students need to make their own decisions about religious observance. A sense of loss may accompany some decisions. In addition, students may be away from family, perhaps for the first time, 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 layers of stress that may be invisible, but are real nonetheless.

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