I was always lucky enough to have Rosh Hashanah off when I was in high school, but only the first day of this two-day holiday, and so that was the only school day I missed. I remember seeing kids in my class hand in notes excusing them from the second day, and wondering what they could possibly be doing on that second day. Later, I watched and realized that if I were only slightly more observant, I’d be standing in line with them holding a note, too. I was always kind of envious, and also slightly relieved.
As I stood in services this Thursday – for the first time creating my own day off for religious observance – I was acutely aware of the flurry of activity that was going on outside of synagogue, in class and extracurricular activities, and how it was all happening without me. Though everyone I spoke to about missing commitments for the holiday was accommodating, I still felt guilty and tried to go to as much as I could; services, class, clubs and athletics. The result was that I did not miss much, but from the early morning until the late evening – more so even than on a usual day – I had to be in constant motion, running across campus in an attempt to fit everything in.
Looking back on that day, I feel as if I should have treated Rosh Hashanah more respectfully and taken the entire day for religious observation; it would have been both more true to the holiday and to what I sought to do. Why didn’t I? There was absolutely nothing stopping me. To quote official Williams policy: “Because no Williams student should ever have to choose between important religious observances and academic or athletic commitments, college policy provides for students who wish to participate in religious observances that conflict with other obligations to make arrangements with their instructors and coaches to do so.”
I knew that this opportunity existed as I planned my observance of the holiday, but I used it sparingly. I trusted that I would be able to miss my normal set of activities without any negative consequences, but I still did not want to ask. I did not want to seem uncommitted to the class or club, or as if I could not fulfill my responsibilities. Though I knew I could take the time to observe Rosh Hashanah, I did not feel comfortable doing so.
In my opinion, even if the College does not cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah, administrators and professors should put in more effort to help students who wish to observe religious holidays of all faiths feel comfortable taking the time they need – and this might take more effort than anyone realizes. Williams students are an extremely high-pressure group; it is not enough for us to know that we can ask for help. We need to be reassured that it is not just appropriate but imperative that we seek accommodation. Making extensions, notes and opportunities to meet one-on-one with the professor available is important, but I think a barrier will still remain between us students and these accommodations: We are very good at requiring extra effort from ourselves, but not from those around us.
I think the best way for the school to present the message that it is not just willing, but happy to accommodate students who want to observe religious holidays is simple: to make the holidays, and the related resources, available and visible so that observance can feel more like a viable alternative and less like an isolating experience. An all-campus email explaining the holiday and the College’s policy on observance might be enough to provide this reassurance. This way, we can be reminded that observing religious holidays is something we can and should feel comfortable doing.
Amy Levine ’14 is from North Potomac, Md. She lives in Agard.