Guest Column by Rabbi Russ Shulkes
For many Jews, holidays are a time of togetherness and family. But for Jewish college students, the High Holidays are a time of anxiety and stress.
This is because the Jewish new year and accompanying holidays occur during the fall academic semester and regularly coincide with midterms. Because the Jewish High Holiday season is more than three weeks long, it is impractical for students to simply return home and tough for them to go about their daily regimen without encountering difficulties.
Students are faced with the burden — sometimes for the first time in their lives — of deciding between religion and academic success. This dilemma does not extend only to Orthodox students, who will not even raise a pencil or type in class on the High Holidays, but also to those who simply want to hear the shofar blast or want to attend a Yizkor service for a dead relative.
Just last year, an Emory student was informed that when she skipped class to attend Rosh Hashanah services, she would receive a zero on the weekly math quiz. But she was told she should not be worried because the lowest quiz grade of the semester would be dropped, so she should feel free to attend services.
The professor imagined that she was graciously accommodating the student’s religious needs, without realizing that she was discriminating against her by punishing her for attending services. Why should the student lose the right to drop her lowest quiz grade, as all of her classmates would, because of an excused absence?
In truth, the professor did not intend to act with prejudice against the Jewish student, but in the end she did.
I am not trying to contend that university classes should be canceled for each religion’s respective holidays, but in the United States, where the semesters are fashioned after the Christian calendar, this reality must be taken into consideration.
Whether a college employs the quarter, semester or trimester system, it is quite clear that Christmas is always during winter break. This is not a coincidence. The current academic calendar itself was fashioned with the Christian holidays in mind.
Indeed, the modern academic calendars employed in British academia are mainly descended from the English law court, and it is the same in the United States. Therefore, Christians never need to sacrifice their religiosity in the name of academic success.
Students shouldn’t need to choose if they want to be a good Jew or get an A; if they want to take notes in class or hear the shofar; if they want to be penalized just for being Jewish. The case must be made before university administrators and officials that it is the professors’ duty to not discriminate; it is not the students’ job to deal with discriminatory policies and sacrifice grades in the name of religion.
We reject the notion that our Jewish students must seek accommodations class by class for the holiday calendar and hope for understanding; rather, all universities should implement a religion protocol, handed out at the start of each semester as part of the class syllabus, that sets universal guidelines for accommodating religious life, that does not penalize students in any way and that encourages them to feel free to follow their religious beliefs.
Rabbi Russ Shulkes is the executive director of Hillels of Georgia.