Balancing school and spirituality during the Jewish high holidays


Although the college offers excused absences for religious observance, some students felt unable to miss class or postpone assignments.

The fall high holidays can be difficult for Jewish students, as they try to complete their coursework while also making space to observe the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, which this year began on the evening of Sept. 29, marks the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, which began the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 8, is the Jewish Day of atonement. 

Both holidays are meant to be days of prayer and celebration, and some Jewish students feel torn between attending services on the holidays and going to class. Though the college offers excused absences for religious observance, the balance is still difficult to strike.

“I felt like I had two days in one,” Jenny Moss ’20.5 said about her experience going from service to class during Rosh Hashanah. “It was a weird and sort of abrupt transition.”

Having to immediately leave the service and re-focus on school means less time for reflection and can take away from the holiday, Moss said. However, missing class can mean added stress on a day meant for prayer. 

While professors are discouraged from having tests or assignments due on either holiday, per the College Handbook, various students have said that their professors have not always honored this policy. This may require a student to take an extension, which could mean devoting time during the holidays to studying or completing the extended work. 

“I didn’t necessarily have to make up a ton of work,” Noah Hochfelder ’22 said. “But it still felt like I kind of needed a little more space to observe and to reflect.”

This balance can be even more difficult on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. The day is meant to reflect on, and ultimately atone for, any wrongs one may have committed, and traditionally there is a daylong fast. This year, Yom Kippur falls on Wednesday, Oct. 9, the middle of the school week. The fast can make going to classes hard, and some students who feel they cannot miss class elect not to fast at all.

There is not an easy solution to making these days less difficult for the students observing them. Students agree that while it would be ideal to have school canceled, it is not pragmatic.

“I think it’s a challenge to fit a religious calendar that is different from the dominant Christian and secular calendar into the [school] year,” said Danielle Stillman, a rabbi and associate chaplain at the college. 

However, there are steps that students say could make the balance easier for them. Professors, for example, could refrain from assigning large projects due in the days immediately following the holidays. Stillman thinks that educating the Middlebury community about these holidays could help professors and the student body be more aware and accommodating during these weeks.

For now, however, practicing students must make a choice: take the day off to observe the holiday, or go to class and observe still.

“I would love to be able to take that whole day to reflect on myself and my past year,” Moss said. “But I’ll either do that or I’ll go to class. You can’t do both.”