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Ethan Tobias '12: Not just a day off

Next week, Brown students may observe an interesting phenomenon. Students will change lab sections. The deadlines for papers will be extended. Tests will be given at alternative times. And for one full day the dining halls might seem a little less crowded. Do not panic! This is not an outbreak of pandemic flu. Rather, it is an ushering in of the Jewish holiday season.

Last Saturday and Sunday, Jews welcomed in the year 5770 by eating apples and honey and sitting in services for as long as humanly possible. They then will do it all over again ten days later, minus the food, on Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur.

On both occasions, observant Jews are not allowed to do work, which includes homework, writing and using electronics. Traditional observance of these holidays means missing classes.

This is especially difficult since the Jewish Holidays usually happen to fall between the end of shopping period and the first round of midterms. It is right when courses are getting into the swing of things, and no one wants to miss class.

According to Hillel, there are approximately 1350 Jewish undergraduates on campus. That is over 20 percent of the undergraduate population, meaning there is a large conflict between religious services and classes for a significant portion of students.

Fall semester is inherently more stressful than spring semester. There are fewer weeks of classes and no week-long vacation like spring break. This year, fall semester was subject to an even greater crunch because Labor Day fell so late. In order to make up for lost time, many professors have assigned more work earlier in the semester. By missing classes for two days, Jewish students — perhaps all students — may find themselves drowning in coursework.

Meanwhile, most Brown students probably did not spend the last week before school started doing something extremely exciting. Many people I have spoken to say they were bored at home. Most of their friends and neighbors had already started school, and they could not wait until they were allowed to move into the dorms. In some instances, people were camping out in friends' rooms or choosing to spend the money to move in early. People cannot wait to return to school.

Luckily, there is a simple solution to all these problems. If the fall semester began a week earlier, students would avoid late summer angst and professors would not feel as rushed. In exchange, students should be given days off for the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The small increase in class days at the beginning of the semester would be more than remedied by an extra break. Most students could use the extra days to catch up on work and study for midterms, while Brown's large Jewish minority could enjoy the freedom to observe their ancient religious traditions. It is truly a win-win solution for everyone.

Of course, some would say that this compromise unfairly rewards Brown's Jewish students as compared to other religious groups. However, the University already makes arrangements for other religious groups on campus. For example, since the first few weeks of classes coincided with Ramadan, the University, through a collaborative effort, was able to accommodate Muslim students by providing iftars, the nightly break-fast.

I applaud the University for undertaking such an effort to make life easier for one religious minority.  It only makes sense that the University also accommodate the needs of one-fifth of students by giving off for the Jewish High Holidays.  Besides, how unfair can it be when all students — not just Jewish students — get the day off?

The Jewish Holidays are already disruptive to classes. Students are forced to move sections, get extensions and ultimately miss valuable class time. The University can keep on ignoring them or it can recognize the fairest, simplest solution to a problem that exists for hundreds of students.

By giving days off for the Jewish High Holidays in conjunction with beginning classes a week earlier, the fall semester would be less of a squeeze for professors, less stressful for students and consistent with other displays of religious accommodations on campus. It is only a start, but it will go a long way toward improving academic life.
Ethan Tobias '12 wants to go home to New York for the Holidays. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias(at)


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