The life of a Jewish student in public school

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The life of a Jewish student is not always easy in public school. That was something that I needed to learn quickly after elementary school.

For the first six years of my education, I went to a Jewish private school called Hebrew Day School. At HDS, every Jewish holiday and every AAPS break was a given day off. I never thought twice about it. Then I arrived at Tappan Middle School. Aside from having to adjust to regular life at public school, I, along with a handful of other students, had to take time off from school for the Jewish holidays. Make-up work threatened to turn my hairs prematurely gray, and while teachers were kind and understanding, they did not stop class just for me and my fellow Jews. I would come back from two missed days loaded up with work, and would have to spend the subsequent evenings trying to catch up.

Every fall, when the bulk of Jewish holidays came around, I would fill with dread, thinking of the looming work. I knew it was a problem, with no apparent solution for the subsequent years.

In the first or second month of the school year (the Hebrew calendar varies from the Gregorian one), there are five Jewish holidays. The first two are the better-known ones, and the most important days of the year. Rosh Hashanah is a two-day affair, celebrating the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Ten days after the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the even more important Yom Kippur begins. This 25-hour sprint is made-up of five main services, asking God’s forgiveness for all the sins committed in the previous year. The holiest day of the year, Jews over 13 years of age traditionally don’t eat or drink for the entire holiday. About half-a-week later, Sukkot begins. Jews construct temporary shelters, usually in their yards or their porches, where they eat meals, and (in theory) sleep. This goes back to the days when the wandering Hebrews needed to survive in the desert. Sukkot lasts for seven days (only the first two are customarily days when a Jew misses school or work), and is immediately followed by Shemini Atzeret, the often overlooked holiday where Jews pray for Israel to get sufficient rain during the wetter months. A day later, the celebratory holiday called Simchat Torah begins, when Jews celebrate finishing and restarting the year-long reading of the Torah. 

These holidays take up the better part of a month, resulting in seven missed days of school if they fall on weekdays, and if a religious student chooses to miss school for every day. The vast majority of Jewish students will miss school for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (some will also skip school for the second day) and Yom Kippur. However, it is a rare student that misses for all seven days in September or October when a Jewish holiday conflicts with school. Until recently, I was one of those students. Annually, I would come back from the holidays trying to catch up from what I had missed, and simultaneously inform my teachers of another upcoming absence. Aside from distracting from the holidays themselves, it made the first month or two of school a hellish experience. Adding to the stress is the fact that religious Jews traditionally don’t do work (writing or working on a computer) during holidays, so we need to get work done in the small windows between the holidays.

In my final year of public school, I, like most seniors, have more work than ever. I’m in four AP classes, I’m applying to college, I have a job, and an extracurricular activity. All of that is barely manageable without missing almost every other day of school in September. I knew that I had to make a choice between extreme stress and continued dedication to my religious faith, or less stress and being less religious. Partially for personal reasons and partially to save myself stress and worry, I chose the latter. I missed school only for Rosh Hashanah (both days) and Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, I went to school for the first time in my life. The workload was obviously lesser, but I felt bad turning my back on the customs of my family, and the way in which they raised me to be Jewish. While I stand by my choice, there were negative consequences that continue to leave me feeling guilty. 

I want to acknowledge people of other faiths who must come to school during holidays or various other elements of their religion. Among the most notable, Muslims often must come to school during Ramadan, when they go a month without food or drink during the daylight hours. Meanwhile, most public school districts are closed for the major Christian holidays. Going to school on Christmas, New Year’s, or Good Friday is unheard of. While I am absolutely not blaming Christian students or staff for the calendar that the Ann Arbor Public Schools observe, something does seem unfair about Christians getting their holidays off, while all other religious groups must choose to either miss school, or largely ignore their important religious traditions by attending classes. 

There is no obvious solution to this issue. The district cannot just say that whatever a student misses when they take off for a religious event is excused, without necessity of making up the work. However, certain issues can be resolved. A safeguard is currently in place that prevents teachers from scheduling tests or quizzes on “major” religious holidays. But maybe the “minor” ones should be included, as well. The district also should set a rule that tests and quizzes can’t be the day after a holiday, as well. Taking a test the day after coming back from a holiday is extremely difficult. I know from experience. Again, there are no perfect solutions for the district to implement, but there are things that can be done to make life easier for those students who miss school for religious reasons. And, in a better world, I will never again have to choose between school and my religion.