The start of a new school year always comes with challenges, but for me, the Fall Semester can be a nightmare. The Jewish month of Tishrei, which generally overlaps with September/October, has 7 days and four preceding evenings of holidays spread across four weeks. During Tishrei, I am expected to keep up with the work of 20 school days, but I have less than 13 to do it. During Tishrei, I often feel like I am drowning. After last year’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, 25 hours of no food or drink, I broke my fast with a cup of coffee. After the full day of prayer and introspection, I pulled an all nighter in order to finish school work. I caught a late-night bus back to Madison for the next morning, because with the holidays only half over, falling behind was not an option. When my last class ended for the day, I sat in the emptied room and cried tears I wasn’t sure why I was crying, something to do with my exhausted body and overwhelmed mind.
Different Jews have differing levels of religious observance. As an Orthodox Jew, in addition to not attending classes, I also uphold other restrictions and obligations which prevent me from keeping up with schoolwork during holidays, such as not writing, not using electronics, not traveling, additional prayers, celebratory meals, and other holiday-specific practices. Regardless of personal observance level, many Jewish students are caught between contradicting impositions of guilt when the holidays roll around; if we attend classes on the holidays, we are “bad Jews”, but if we miss classes for the holidays, we are “bad students”.
UW’s official policy states that all students with a religious time conflict, including travel time, must be given an alternative for meeting an academic requirement either before or after the date of the scheduled requirement. Essentially, this means that while a student cannot be penalized on the day of a holiday for missing class, not turning in work, or not taking tests, there is no real mechanism to assist students in making up the material or work missed. Students are permitted to be absent, but asked to rectify their absences immediately on days that are often also filled with classes.
A short guide to helping out students during non-Christian holidays:
- Look around in your classes and offer notes to students who may be absent during these days. If you have the time, offer to explain the materials.
- Ask your Jewish friends what you can do to help during Tishrei. Missing class can be stressful, and even something small like bringing a friend a cup of coffee can go a long way.
- Familiarize yourself with the dates of your friend’s holidays; simply wishing a friend a Happy New Year can be a sweet way of letting them know that you care, that they are seen, and that they are not alone, especially for students who may have been unable to take off or see their families.
What professors can do to help students:
- Offer to record classes given over holidays and consider posting slides from these days, even if you do not normally post slides or record classes.
- Open office hours longer and on varied days during the Jewish holiday month. Make yourself available to meet with students to go over the materials outside of regular hours.
- Be flexible in rescheduling quizzes, exams, and assignments.
- Remember that students who are absent for religious observance are often having the same problems in several classes at once. These students are expected to be able to make up work on days that they have regularly scheduled classes in addition to the pushed-off materials/assignments/meetings. Be understanding and accommodating.
- Some students may wish to take an unexcused absence rather than deal with notifying professors of their religious observance, especially in classes where attendance is not mandatory. These students are still deserving of assistance.
Rosh Hashana: September 29- October 1
Yom Kippur: October 8-9
Sukkot: October 13-15
Chol HaMoed Sukkot (Intermediate days): October 15-20
Shemini Atzeret: October 20-21
Simchat Torah: October 21-22
(In the Jewish Calendar, the new day begins in the evening. These dates reflect not the Gregorian day, but the Jewish day which begins and ends at sundown on each respective date.)