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Repenting in Class

Monday, September 24, 2012
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Dear Miriam,

I just missed two days of classes for Rosh Hashanah. Now I’m really behind in everything, and there’s no way I can miss another day this week for Yom Kippur. I know Yom Kippur is the more important holiday. Had I realized how tough it would be to miss class, I would have gone on Rosh Hashanah so I could skip on Yom Kippur. Now I don’t really feel like I have a choice. Does it make me a bad Jew to go to school on Yom Kippur?

Signed,
Repenting in Class

Dear Repenting,

First off, I hate the term “bad Jew.” It’s a judgment people put on themselves to criticize their own choices/beliefs, and it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. If you think a decision that you’re making is a bad one, make a different one. If you stand behind your own convictions, "badness" won't be part of the equation. So I don’t think that any particular choice will make you a bad Jew, though I do think you have some options that are preferable to others.

Your question assumes that you must go to class. I would encourage you to think about where that pressure is coming from and whether there might be another way. If you’re attending school in Philadelphia, you’re unlikely to be the only student missing class on Yom Kippur. Even if you are the only Jewish student, you’re probably not the first one your professor has ever encountered facing this dilemma. Talk to other students who may be missing and ask what they’re doing. Talk to your professors and see if there are options to reschedule a quiz, record the lecture or get an extension on an assignment. Professors can’t excuse you from the work, but they can help you find a solution that allows for religious observance and academic responsibility.

When students talked to me last week about having to go to class on Rosh Hashanah, we discussed fitting in ways to celebrate by having a dinner with friends, bringing apples and honey to share with classmates or perhaps taking a break to hear the shofar during a small portion of services. On the one hand, those options don’t exist in the same way for Yom Kippur. On the other hand, services are likely to last so much longer that if you do have even a half hour break during the day, you’re likely to be able to catch at least part of them.

Services aren’t necessarily the be all and end all of observing the holiday either. Fasting is arguably more important in terms of actual commandments regarding the day. Part of what makes fasting tolerable for me is being in a room with other people who are doing the same thing, so being in class could make this a greater challenge. If fasting isn’t a priority for you, then it comes down to finding a little time and space for yourself during the holiday to do some serious self-reflection. Maybe you read articles about the true meaning of teshuvah (literally, turning, but often translated as repentance). Maybe you find a break fast to attend or plan your own, so you still experience that communal vibe. Maybe you say, "O.K., this year I can’t observe Yom Kippur in an ideal way, but next year I will."

One of the central messages of the High Holidays is that change is possible. No one is defined by any one decision, and each year we have the chance to begin anew. You don’t have to view this year’s observance, or lack thereof, as a precedent for your future celebrations. Yom Kippur isn’t actually about making you feel guilty; it’s about the opportunity to absolve yourself of guilt. In the end, whatever you do, be prepared to stand behind your decision, both when discussing it with other people and when thinking about it for yourself.

Be well,
Miriam

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