August 31, 2006
College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning
The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.
Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students' rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.
But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.
At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.
Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.
"I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it's fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly," said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.
Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues -- at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain's office -- most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday. Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn't come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.
For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student's lowest exam score in the calculation of the students' final grades -- but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student's lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.
"Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that's OK," said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school. Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a "problem" for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.
"You're dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe," he said. "So, I'm trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have." Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.
"You go out into the world, and you know that you're in a law job, and it's tough ... and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity," he added. "So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal."
Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.
David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He's already made up his mind about when he'll miss class and when he won't and put on a relaxed front.
"It's only a few days a year," he said. "It's not a big deal."