When students come to Hillel of Greater Philadelphia seeking advice on how to handle a conflict between class and observing the High Holidays, Rabbi Howard Alpert said he advises them on how to discuss the issue with their professors, but he himself avoids intervening.
His reasoning is that when a student has to explain such an absence to faculty it can act as a "great laboratory for adulthood and how to navigate society as a Jew," Alpert said.
With the High Holidays falling during work weeks this year, the timing will serve as a challenge to some students who will likely have to cram their studies before or after, or attend classes and complete work on those days. Schools are required by federal law to make reasonable accommodations for students observing a religious holiday. This means that students are not required to be in class, but, as with a sick day, they must explain their absence and make up whatever work had been scheduled.
"It happens on occasion that a professor might announce a quiz on one of the High Holidays and a student comes to us upset. We help them develop the language with which they can go back to the professor and describe why their religious conscience won't allow them to attend class," Alpert said.
Temple University will be in its fourth week of classes when the holiday begins on Sept 16.
Joshua Fisher, a junior at Temple, said he and his family had gradually become more observant over his lifetime, moving from a Reform congregation to an Orthodox shul.
For Fisher, Yom Kippur means returning home to Huntington Valley and attending services the entire day — no academics. But on Rosh Hashanah, Fisher said, he plans to daven and still attend classes. To him, what's most crucial on the holiday is hearing the shofar, and for that, he said he can visit the rabbi on campus during breaks.
In the business school, where Fisher is a student, most classrooms are equipped with cameras in order to film the lectures. Fisher said if you inform a professor that you plan to miss class, he or she will record the lecture.
"Usually they're considerate, and won't schedule a quiz or anything on the holidays," he said.
And if one is scheduled?
"They prefer you take it before everyone else as opposed to after it. They don't want you to get a pass of two more days. If this is part of your lifestyle you have to put in the extra work and get things done," Fisher said.
In March, Stony Brook University, a public school in New York, announced that it would no longer cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and any other Jewish or Christian holiday. Jews are only a small minority of the student population at Stony Brook. The earlier accommodation was rare among large public schools, and the change drew national attention.
In explaining the decision to Fox News, Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stony Brook, referred to the school's never having officially recognized Muslim and Buddhist holidays. "Now all segments of our population" will be equal, he said. "It really is the American fair thing to do."
There are still some schools that cancel classes for the Jewish holidays. Brandeis University doesn't schedule any classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and it times spring break to coincide with Passover, a policy that probably won't change given that more than half of the student population is Jewish. But at State University of New York at Buffalo, classes are canceled at 6 p.m. on erev Rosh Hashanah and erev Yom Kippur and reopen at 6 p.m. the following day, and there only about 10 percent of the students are Jewish.
"As a student, it's so much easier not to be obligated to attend class while you are emotionally and spiritually obligated to observe the holiday," said Daniel Cohen, director of development at the Buffalo Hillel.
Even for strictly observant students, though, an academic calender that accounts for the holidays is not always foremost when deciding which school to attend. Rachel Gindoff, a junior nursing student at Temple, was raised in an Orthodox family. She chose the school because it was close to home, affordable and had a good reputation for her major. She knew that classes would proceed as normal on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that it would be her responsibility to make-up the work. In compensating for her absences this year, she said she might have to complete 12-hour clinical shifts.
"It's unavoidable just because of the way the system is set up," Gindoff said. "It's hard because I understand they can't cancel classes" for a small number of students.
Orthodox students, accustomed to pausing their lives each week for Shabbat and strict observance of all Jewish holidays, generally have an easier time managing the High Holidays than other Jewish students for whom the holidays are a more rare interruption, said Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, director of the Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University.
"If we would all be living in Israel, we would have all the holidays off, but we live in America," de Koninck said. "That's part of living in multiple worlds."
In addition to longer, traditional services, the Drexel Hillel offers a "Shot of the High Holidays" service, and the Stony Brook Hillel this year will start to offer "Rosh in a Rush," condensed services which allow students to pray and then return to class.
"What we look at in terms of what Hillel does is providing doorways into Jewish experience for everyone," de Koninck said. "The [condensed service] is really geared towards students who are looking for a different kind of spiritual experience. There are some students who have never gone to services, and we use a blend of meditation, some conversation and some of the more powerful elements of the liturgy to help them connect to the themes of the holiday."