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The High Holidays: They’re Here, and ‘Earlier’ Than Usual
Along with bathing suits and beach chairs, the Wohl family brought something else to their beach house in Ocean City, Md. — copies of the Yom Kippur Torah portion, along with detailed notes.
Both Jerel Wohl and his 14-year-old son, Harris, are slated to stand on the bimah at Temple Judea of Bucks County on Yom Kippur and chant from the book of Leviticus.
With the holidays falling so early this year — Rosh Hashanah begins on Sept. 4 and Kol Nidre falls on Sept. 13 — Wohl said he and his son had no choice but to study during their vacation.
“There are lots of distractions,” said Wohl, who lives in Warrington and directs fiscal operations at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. “You try to get done what you can.”
The Jewish world is used to the quirks of the Hebrew calendar, which is based on lunar cycles and therefore is not in sync with the secular Gregorian calendar. The High Holidays tend to fall anywhere from early to mid-September to the first half of October.
But this year is truly exceptional. It features the earliest Rosh Hashanah since 1899, according to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. The holiday won’t fall this close to Labor Day again until 2089. And the weirdness doesn’t stop there: Look a few months down the road and you’ll see that the first night of Chanukah — a holiday that sometimes coincides with Christmas — actually comes the day before Thanksgiving.
Adding to the calendar conflicts: This year, Rosh Hashanah falls during the first week of school for most local school districts and schools have had to make scheduling adjustments accordingly.
That synchronism is refocusing attention on the policies of public schools and how they decide whether or not to close for religious holidays.
For many non-day school families — who represent most of the families in the community — the intersection of the Jewish and secular calendar is raising the question of whether or not their kids should miss classes with the school year barely underway.
Meanwhile, the holiday’s early arrival has severely shortened the summer for synagogues and rabbis, forcing them to begin preparations in the heat of late July and early August. A number of rabbis and synagogue educators opted either to skip out on vacations altogether or move them up to June or early July.
Some congregations sent out High Holiday tickets in the middle of August, often not waiting to check whose membership was current and who still needed to pay dues.
The date is also making it difficult for many to make the mental and spiritual switch from the dog days of summer to the Days of Awe. With Selichot — the recitation of penitential prayers that ushers in the start of the High Holidays — falling on Aug. 31 over Labor Day weekend, the calendar virtually guarantees that services will be sparsely attended at most congregations.
Rabbi Eric Rosin of Kesher Israel, a Conservative synagogue in West Chester, said he often travels to Israel during the summer but opted not to this year because he needed to prepare for the holidays. Still, he sees an upside.
“When we begin our programming year, we won’t have a month’s interruption,” as is often the case, he said. “This is going to help us really invite people in for a new year’s experience at the synagogue.”
Asked whether this year’s calendar presents a special challenge for congregants looking to get in the spiritual zone, he said: “I’ve heard more panic about getting brisket in the oven than doing spiritual preparation.”
When it comes to the discord between Jewish and secular calendars, perhaps there’s no thornier issue than what it means for schools and students. Do schools close for one or both days of Rosh Hashanah? If not, can students get excused absences? And even if they are technically allowed to miss school, do they suffer repercussions for missing class and possibly falling behind on class work?
While the issue arises every year, it is particularly tricky this year because for many districts, Rosh Hashanah is falling during the first week of school.
In Evesham Township, N.J., efforts by parents to move the first day of school from Sept. 6 — the second day of Rosh Hashanah — to Sept. 9 prompted a heated school board debate. After the board voted to change the date, member Rosemary Bernardi allegedly made anti-Semitic comments and was ultimately pressured to step down from the board.
Hoping to avoid such controversies in other districts, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter on Aug. 1 to 200 school district superintendents in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
“We certainly understand that logistical issues attributed to student or teacher observance of Rosh Hashanah may not justify rescheduling the first days of the school year,” the letter stated. “In that case, you have a constitutional and statutory obligation to accommodate without penalty students who are absent for Rosh Hashanah.”
Nancy Baron-Baer, the ADL’s associate regional director, said that court rulings stipulate that schools can’t close for explicitly religious purposes. But they can decide to close for logistical reasons, such as a large percentage of students or teachers being absent.
A handful of school systems across the country, but none locally, have opted to also close for major Muslim holidays, such as Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the conclusion of Ramadan.
Baron-Baer said the issue is heightened this year because the first week of school is “a really important time for the student. To miss those days creates perhaps a greater burden for the student.”
The vast majority of area school districts close on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Some with larger Jewish populations, such as Council Rock in Bucks County and Lower Merion in Montgomery County, close for both days.
Wohl, the beach-goer trying to get in some Torah trope study while hitting the waves and sand, knows school scheduling issues well. He sits on the board of the Central Bucks School District. He said that back in 1988, a group of Jewish students pushed to have schools closed on the High Holidays. Since then, schools are shut for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but not the second.
“If people really spoke up loudly for the need for the second day off,” it might cause the district to reconsider, he said. “What has been shared is not to have assignments due during a religious holiday. In terms of policy, teachers cannot mandate homework. They can’t offer a test the next day.”
Wohl said his family typically doesn’t go to synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, even though Temple Judea offers services then, in contrast to many Reform congregations.
“If school were closed, I think that we might end up going to synagogue,” he said. “That shows how the school schedule is really driving practice.”
Twins Alyssa and Kaitlin Graham have always taken off school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to attend services at Ohev Shalom in Wallingford. This year, the holiday is coming on the fourth day of classes at Strath Haven High School, and the girls are considering going to school.
“We aren’t sure what are teachers are going to be like, if we can miss a day,” said 16-year-old Alyssa Graham.
Meanwhile, Molly Diamondstein, who attends Parkland High School in Allentown, can’t even count on having the first day of Rosh Hashanah off from school: School in her town is typically open on the High Holidays. (Yom Kippur falls on a Saturday this year so it’s not an issue.)
Diamondstein, 17, sits on the board of the Philadelphia region of the Conservative movement United Synagogue Youth, which requires its leaders to pledge to observe all Jewish holidays and keep kosher. She said her teachers have never given her a problem about taking off. “But you always miss something and it is hard sometimes to catch up.”
“It is not like I live in Bala Cynwyd where there are Jews on every street,” said the senior. “It is really hard for everyone who is Jewish to come to school for two days and to miss two days and to be behind before we even start.”
Fellow USY board member Goldie Robbins of Center City doesn’t have the same worries. Like all Philadelphia public schools, her school, the Science Leadership Academy, doesn’t begin until Sept. 9.
But pledging to fully observe the holidays means that by Sept. 25, she’ll have to ask her teachers to be excused for Shemini Atzeret, the holiday that concludes Sukkot and comes toward the end of the month of Jewish holidays. It’s one of the holidays where work is traditionally prohibited.
“My teachers didn’t have a problem. But I had to explain to them that I am going to be in synagogue, I’m not just taking off two days. I can’t do my schoolwork,” Robbins said, referring to when she took off for Shavuot in May. “You definitely have to explain to the teachers. I’m used to it by now.”
Robbins is already looking ahead to Thanksgiving. She’s not a big fan of turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and is lobbying her mother to have latkes be the main dish at the Thanksgiving table.
“Are we thinking about it? Yes,” said Robbins’ mother, Lynn Norton Robbins, New Jersey regional director for the Jewish National Fund. “We usually get together with a group of families for Thanksgiving at one place and Chanukah at another place. And this year, they are on the same day, so we are doing them all together.”