Made to choose: spirituality or school?
For most of the world, Sept. 8, 2021 was not significant in any way. For the University of Wisconsin’s population of roughly 4,000 Jewish students and faculty, it was a day where they had to choose between spirituality and school. This year, Wisconsin’s first day of class — a day that appeared to be insignificant to the university’s administration — happened to fall on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and one of the holiest days of the Hebrew calendar.
Every Wednesday from 6-7:30 p.m. I have a University Writing Seminar class. It never occurred to me, however, that I would be anywhere but at the Berlin Chapel last Wednesday night. To Jews, 6:36 p.m of that day marked the beginning of Yom Kippur: the day of atonement and the most critical day of the Hebrew calendar. It marked the start of a 25-hour abstinence from eating, drinking, bathing, working and wearing leather. It was a night we would have to agonize over the same impossible decision Wisconsin’s Jews had to make: spirituality or school?
When I initially looked up the 2021-22 academic calendar and saw no mention of erev Yom Kippur, I assumed it was a mistake. Though the school cancelled classes on Thursday for Yom Kippur proper, it neglected to call off classes for when Yom Kippur begins on Wednesday night and when services are held. Observant Jews cannot attend class without breaching the sanctity of the day. At a school with no shortage of religious Jews, the schedule should accommodate our practices. For these reasons, I was somewhat in a state of denial as Wednesday night approached closer and closer. “They will call it off at some point,” I speculated. Surprisingly, at 6:36 p.m. last Wednesday I found myself at the Brown Social Science Center concentrating on the blinding blue light of my laptop as my professor lectured about the theories of William James. I stared intently at my professor, almost waiting for him to burst into laughter and say, "You really thought we would have class on Yom Kippur at Brandeis?!” Quite frankly, I’m still waiting for the moment the administration announces they orchestrated history’s most elaborate prank.
Sitting through class that evening, I struggled to accept the paradoxical reality of the situation. The American Jewish community founded Brandeis to combat antisemitism and serve as a haven for marginalized groups. In what seems to be an alternate universe, the same school founded on such honorable principles effectively marginalized the community that brought it into existence.
Though I understand that the University cannot accommodate every holiday of every religion, Brandeis possesses an everlasting connection to Judaism. A distinct connection that is apparent through Brandeis’ origins, history, name, student life and aura. According to Brandeis’ website, the motivation to erect the University stemmed from discrimination against Jews and other minorities. Ivy league schools such as Yale held quotas until the early 1960’s that ensured Jews would not make up more than 10 percent of its total enrollment. The American Jewish community sought to create an institution that embraces diversity as opposed to inhibiting it. Not only that, but the motto “truth even unto its innermost parts” that appears on Brandeis’s logo is derived from Judaism. As Rabbi Seth Winberg expressed during this year’s Convocation ceremony, the University’s seal contains the Hebrew word “emet,” which means truth. Brandeis’s most obvious link to Judaism, however, is its abundant Jewish enrollment and presence through organizations like Hillel.
Correspondingly, the institution has an undeniable connection to Yom Kippur, the most important day of the Jewish year. Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to hold classes last Wednesday evening did not reflect Brandeis’ intrinsic values. Instead, it demanded its sizable Jewish population to choose between breaking our inherent principles or inevitably falling behind in our studies. When I chose Brandeis, a consequential factor was the prospect that I would not have to make a decision like that. After hearing about the Wisconsin story over the summer I felt both disappointment and relief. “I’ll never have to worry about making that choice at Brandeis,” I selfishly thought to myself. Perhaps I was naive to believe in such a utopia.
I had to make the same decision on Monday night when another high holiday, Sukkot, began. Lasting from sundown of Sept. 20 to nightfall of Sept. 27, this holiday celebrates the collecting of the harvest. In addition, Sukkot honors the astounding support and shelter God provided the Jewish people through their 40 year journey in the desert after liberation from Egyptian bondage. Work is prohibited from the sundown of Monday, Sept. 20 to the nightfall of Wednesday Sept. 22. Those who are observant would be breaking their religious values by attending classes. Despite the significance of this holiday, classes at Brandeis are being held Monday night and the entirety of Wednesday. I’m not calling on the administration to cancel the classes that fall on Sukkot in the future. Rather, I want to emphasize the dilemmas of being an American Jewish college student.
The reality is that American Christians never have to choose between attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve and attending class. They never have to choose between violating their religious values or turning in an assignment on time. For Jews, it’s rare to go a year without having to make such a choice on multiple occasions. Something I’ve overheard around campus recently is how many days we’ve had “off.” I have the impression that professors assign work over holidays because of this preconceived notion that our holidays are days off. During the class I went to at the start of Yom Kippur, for example, a non-Jewish person conveyed their excitement to have the next day (Yom Kippur proper) to catch up on their work. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what the person said. This, however, epitomizes the essence of the issue. Non-Jews view our holidays as nothing more than intermissions to their lives. Conversely for Jews, when the buzzer sounds to indicate the start of a holiday, it is a day of reflection from then on out. It’s a break for us too, but not a leisurely vacation. Our “break” is from the aspects of life that distract us from God. We won’t be Snapchatting, TikToking or studying. On some days we won’t be eating, drinking or bathing either. Everything we do on these days is to build our connection to Judaism and strengthen our relationship to Hashem.
I don’t possess any animosity towards Brandeis because it held classes on the eve of the holiest day of the year. Despite its mistakes, I still choose to believe in the exceptionalism of this institution. In a way, Brandeis is like my baby, and I’m the parent that isn’t angry, but disappointed. I love this University with all of my heart, but I also want it to grow, progress and mature. Issues that occur at the University must be addressed in order to optimize its growth. This will not be achieved by sweeping failures under the rug. If Brandeis is the extraordinary school I believe it to be, it will learn from this failure and make its schedule for next year more accomodating. That being said, if the administration decides otherwise, I am going to have a lot of writing material over these next four years.