Observant Jewish Students Reflect on the Struggles of a Holiday-Filled September
By Nira Dayanim
After missing up to seven days of class throughout the first month of school for the Jewish holidays, many observant Jewish students are struggling to recover and some are calling for change.
The Jewish month of Tishrei, which approximately corresponds to September, contains the high holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and a number of other holidays. Last year, due to a combination of the holidays falling out on the weekends and the flexibility of Zoom classes, religious observances were far less disruptive. This year, as every Jewish holiday happened during the school week, observant students were reminded of the difficulties of balancing observance and academics at this university.
According to Hillel International’s statistics, around 1 in 5 undergraduate students at the University of Maryland is Jewish. However, the university doesn’t give off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the two largest holidays in the Jewish calendar.
According to the same statistics, at both Binghamton University and Queens College, two public universities in New York, around 1 in 4 undergraduate students is Jewish. Both universities give off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
At the University of Maryland, in addition to being unable to attend class on the holidays, some Jewish students also do not write or use electronics. These students are unable to complete assignments on the holidays. Observant Jewish students who also keep the Sabbath weren’t able to do schoolwork for three days a week, several weeks in a row, during the period of the holidays.
Yonah Hamermesh, a senior government and politics and economics major, explained that, despite her best efforts, having school during the holidays negatively impacted her academic performance at the beginning of the semester.
“I would probably go to sleep around 2 a.m. having not finished my homework yet, and then wake up and cram and do a bad job on an assignment because I just didn’t have time,” she said.
Like Hamermesh, other observant Jewish students felt the ever-present stress of balancing academics and religious observance. On September 25th, this stress was the topic of a post in “UMD Kedma Confessions,” an anonymous Facebook page used by the Orthodox Jewish community on campus to make jokes and share compliments.
“I’m exhausted… and I feel like I’m missing out on enjoying the [holidays] or actually getting anything out of it spiritually because I am so stressed about meeting due dates,” the post read.
Liora Petter-Lipstein, a freshman letters and sciences student, said that the academic stress during the holidays significantly impacted her mental health.
“If the university really cares about the mental health specifically of its Jewish students, they should give us off for our major holidays. They’re not scheduling classes on Christmas…Why should it be that [Jewish students] have to choose between religious observance and school?” she said.
The first few weeks of school are crucial to the student body’s preparedness for the semester. This year, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and first holiday of the season, started in the evening of September 6th. This left observant Jewish students scrambling with only a week to contact professors about their absences, find classmates to get notes from, and adjust to course expectations.
As other students were making friends and getting to know their professors, these students felt they missed that opportunity.
“I would say it definitely made me feel isolated… when other people were forming bonds and study groups, I kind of got left in the dust,” Hamermesh said.
In addition to missing classes, many observant Jewish students missed the First Look Fair. The fair was initially scheduled to take place over two days, only one of which was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, but then was condensed to one day and rescheduled for a different Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah. During the fall semester, the First Look Fair is the only in-person showcase of all the student organizations at this university. This made it difficult for clubs with a significant number of observant Jewish members to table, as well as for observant Jewish students to learn about and sign up for extracurricular activities.
Naomi Rosenbaum, a freshman computer science major, felt that balancing the holidays and schoolwork during her first month made it harder to meet other freshmen and get involved in extracurriculars. The scheduling of the First Look Fair further complicated things for Rosenbaum.
“It’s just, like, the little things they build up,” she said.
In universities across the country, several of Rosenbaum’s friends who previously observed the Jewish holidays didn’t this year. According to Rosenbaum, they felt that the university environment wasn’t conducive to observance and worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch up if they missed class on all those days.
“At some point, like, what do I sacrifice to just get by in classes? I know that’s a big question me and a lot of my friends struggle with,” Rosenbaum said.
Ayelette Halbfinger, a junior marketing and operations management & business analytics major, said that one of her professors likened religious observance to not wanting to answer emails on Labor Day. This made Halbfinger feel that education about Jewish culture is lacking.
“I’m not doing it just to disconnect…it is a religious obligation for me, which is radically different,” she said.
According to Halbfinger, because teachers at this university don’t know enough about the Jewish holidays, it’s difficult for them to meet the needs of observant Jewish students in terms of extensions and academic support. Some students were concerned that a lack of understanding about the Jewish holidays would lead professors to think they were slacking off.
“It felt difficult to keep asking for religious accommodations to be made because I didn’t want [professors] to think I’m not prioritizing the class,” said Petter-Lipstein.
Other students agree that the university could do more to educate staff members about Jewish observance, and about religious observance in general. Hamermesh feels that this university should have mandatory education or diversity training about religious observance and holidays, especially for minority cultures.
“I know that this is also a problem for students who are Muslim or Hindu,” she said.
Despite the immense difficulties that come with balancing religious observance and academics every year, many Jewish students are grateful to have had the opportunity to observe their customs and practices openly in a diverse environment. Specifically, Rosenbaum enjoyed having the opportunity to educate non-Jewish people in her dorm about the holidays. “It’s extremely fun to celebrate the Jewish holidays with this diverse community,” she said.