Stony Brook University administration announced a year ago that it would be holding classes on two of the holiest holidays on the Jewish calendar. As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pass, many Jewish students remain upset about this new policy.
“The parallel would be any [religious] student having class on their highest holidays,” said Rabbi Joseph Topek, Director of Hillel and the campus Rabbi. “Would a Christian like having classes on Christmas?”
With this analogy, Rabbi Topek emphasized the importance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, collectively referred to in the Jewish tradition as the High Holidays. Whereas many holidays are increasingly festive these days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are mostly religious affairs. Yom Kippur is particularly solemn.
To understand the significance of the holidays, it is important to understand what they represent. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year; in Hebrew it literally means “head of the year.” Where some New Year celebrations are solely times for festivities, Rosh Hashanah features the Ten Days of Repentance. During this period, consisting of the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, practitioners of the faith try to seek forgiveness for their sins of the past year.
This process culminates with Yom Kippur, the most austere day in the Jewish calendar, which is a long day of atonement to God. Joy Werner-Gluzman, the program director at Hillel, one of the two large Jewish campus organizations, explains why holding classes might pose problems for Jewish students.
“For Yom Kippur, the problem is that students are fasting,” she says, adding that because of the restrictions of the holiday, Jewish students, “can’t write, which is a problem if you have to be in class.”
This does not simply affect Jewish students. Jewish faculties are also forced to scramble to hold classes. Rabbi Topek said that, among countless complaints from Jewish students, he has heard that many faculty members had to get a colleague to teach the class. “I think it’s had a more negative effect than the university realizes,” he said.
Stony Brook University has framed the situation as an academic issue. In a message to the community, Stony Brook states, “Stony Brook is a public institution with a very diverse student body and as such we have always believed that religious observance is and must always be a personal choice, not an institutional mandate. Stony Brook is first and foremost an educational institution.”
University policy, however, cannot supersede state law. As Rabbi Topek points out, section 224 of New York State Education Law reads “any student in an institution of higher education who is unable, because of his or her religious beliefs, to attend classes on a particular day or days shall…be excused from any examination or any study or work requirements.”
Of all the Jewish students interviewed, not one was particularly happy about the changes. For many Jewish students, the problem with the academic calendar changes is about more than simply having or not having class. Gluzman said that the worst part of having classes on the holidays for Jewish students is “not being able to be home with the family.”
Lisa Roth is one student affected by this problem. “I’m a very big family person and [spending the holidays together] was very important to my parents,” she said. Despite celebrating the holidays at Stony Brook Hillel and enjoying herself, she said that she was disappointed. “I wasn’t able to spend the holidays with my parents like I do every friggin’ year.”
Roth pointed out what she feels to be a “contradiction” on behalf of the university: holding classes on religious holidays, thereby offending a select group of students, but not holding class on random days, that would offend no one. “I don’t know why we’re getting off for the day after Labor Day,” she said.