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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

High Holiday Hiatus: Blessing or Curse

Published: October 4, 2013
Section: News

The smell of fall is in the air, and along with pleasant weather, changing leaves and pumpkin spice lattes, autumn at Brandeis is filled with several Jewish holidays. On most college campuses, observant Jewish students must miss class to celebrate these holidays, but since there is such a large Jewish population at Brandeis, and it is not feasible for so many students to miss class, there are no university exercises.

Observant students, of course, are thrilled that they will not be penalized academically for missing class to observe important holidays. College classes are rigorous and missing one lecture can mean a lot of catching up. Elsewhere, professors discourage students from missing classes for almost any reason, which is understandable. What is not understandable, however, is how some professors at schools do not accommodate their students’ religious needs. As the Syracuse University newspaper “The Daily Orange” writes, Jewish students feel “pressured to come to class by professors or do not receive accommodations that fairly allow for them to make up work.”

Brandeis understands the injustice of this situation, and by shaping the academic calendar around Jewish holidays, hopes to avoid blunders such as these: But is Brandeis catering to everyone?

It makes sense for observant Jewish students to miss class for holidays, but does it make sense for the rest of the student body to miss it too? Do many days off so early in the semester put students at an unfair disadvantage by creating gaps in the learning process, disrupting retention of information and routine? For the most part, the general consensus is no. Sara Cardenas, a non-Jewish first-year, enjoys having the extra time off to relax and bond with friends and roommates.

“It’s been kind of nice as a first-year to have the days off, so I’m not too overwhelmed—especially in the first month. I can understand how these days off can be annoying to some people, but I feel this has helped me get into the flow and rhythm of school. It’s nice to have the day off to relax, step back and take a breather,” she said.

Jewish students are grateful for the breather, too. Liora Zhrebker ’17 said that as an observant Jew, she was so glad that missing classes wasn’t a burden on her. Zhrebker said, “I know if I didn’t have the days off and had to arrange to make sure I got class off, I would be really stressed knowing that professors covered information that I missed.”

Dean of Student Life Maggie Balch views the days off as a potential difficulty for students getting used to a new routine. “It’s hard enough to remember your normal schedule, but when you combine that with a Brandeis day and you have to attend your Thursday classes on a Tuesday, that makes everything even harder … everybody loves some level of structure, and classes and schedules provide that,” she said.

Balch thinks that the schedule disruption makes it hard for clubs and other activities to have meetings. She brought up another ideal—non-Jewish students are immediately introduced to Jewish holidays and culture with the holidays so early in the semester. “It’s an interesting and exciting time to learn,” she said. As for any suggestions she had about having no classes, she said, “Perhaps if the holidays happened later in the semester, a faculty member who isn’t observant may hold open office hours or study sessions for that day, but as the holidays fall early on in the semester, that’s not practical.”

Even professors have a positive view of getting time off. Jen Cleary (THA) said that the time off from classes can be an advantage. “It’s almost a reconvening of the community when classes meet again after a while. People miss each other and get back into their schedules rejuvenated.” When asked if she has been affected negatively by days off from classes and Brandeis Thursdays, she said, “I haven’t been so affected, but the holidays [two weeks ago] affected one class that only meets on Tuesdays. I’m flexible, though. I add a lot of planning because I know the fall has a lot of Jewish holidays, and they definitely should be observed,” she stated.