Swarms of prospective students descended on campus this past week. Walking between classes, I found myself doubling back to get around groups of 50 or more high schoolers, parents in tow, listening attentively to a hoarse Brown student yelling ineffectively at the top of his lungs.
Brown is a popular school — over 30,000 people apply — yet this week, the number of potential Brunonians on campus skyrocketed. What drove this sudden increase?
The simplest answer is that many high schools in the Northeast were on break this past week, precisely at the point when high school juniors begin to seriously consider where they are going to apply later this year. But why should so many more high schools have break now?
This week saw the celebration of both Easter and Passover. In the spirit of accommodating religious observances, it is common for high schools, especially in the Northeast, to time their spring breaks to coincide with these two holidays. Both Passover and Easter are holidays that observers spend with family, often traveling out of town. For observers of Passover, the restrictions against eating leavened bread make eating at a school cafeteria all but impossible. In the best interest of both students and teachers who would like to observe these holidays without worrying about homework or tests, giving time off for the week leading up to Easter — usually coinciding with Passover — is a way of accommodating the overwhelming number of religiously observant Americans.
Yet this sort of pragmatic calendar planning is all but lost on Brown. Despite having an overwhelming Judeo-Christian population, Brown does very little to accommodate those who want to observe Passover or Easter. Easter is on a Sunday, so there is somewhat of an excuse there, but this year's first Passover seder was Monday.
For Jews, Passover is practically the equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is a time when extended family and friends come together to share in a meal intended to cherish freedom. Brown would never schedule classes on Thanksgiving or Christmas but does not hesitate to schedule classes on Passover, despite the fact that Jewish students make up over 20 percent of students and that Passover is one of the most widely observed Jewish customs, with 79 percent of American Jews attending a Passover seder.
Sure, most professors will accommodate students and excuse absences for religious observance, yet hundreds of Brown students clearly felt they could not leave as shown by the hundreds who attended the seders at Hillel.
Besides, it is not like Brown always schedules classes on Passover. Last year, by coincidence, the Passover seders fell over spring break. Brown could adopt some pragmatic sensibility in scheduling the academic year with the flexibility to move spring break a week or two to align with Passover and Easter.
Another sensible approach would be to move spring break earlier in March to more closely align with other universities — giving Brown students the chance to see friends while home over break — while exchanging the Presidents' Day holiday in favor of two days off for Passover and Easter. Having a few days off for Passover and Easter will also make it easier for parents of both college- and high school-aged children to schedule family vacations and provide a way for Brown students to spend time with their high school-aged friends.
Fortunately, the University has shown a willingness to consider the religious observances of students in the past. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, would have fallen on the first two days of school last fall. Aware that shopping classes while trying to attend High Holiday services would have been a huge conflict for the Jewish community, the school year was pushed to begin before Labor Day. There was still school on Rosh Hashanah, but luckily, not the crucial first two days.
This coming fall, there is an opportunity for Brown to exercise the same kind of pragmatic scheduling. Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, on which Jews are not permitted even to eat, falls on Friday, Oct. 7. Yet rather than give us that day off, which would be convenient for Brown's Jewish community, the University is choosing to give us Oct. 10 — Columbus Day — instead.
But since the University renamed the weekend Fall Weekend, the nominal ties to Columbus Day have been severed. If the University really wanted to show the weekend is something other than Columbus Day by a different name, then it should give off the Friday of Yom Kippur, not the Monday of Columbus Day, thereby aiding a significant minority of the student body and demonstrating its support of Native American grievances.
Since both holidays fall on precisely the same weekend — and missing a day of class on a Monday or a Friday is essentially the same scheduling-wise, if not a little better for students who have Monday seminars — this would be a win-win for the school and a good first start toward a pragmatic, considerate approach to scheduling.
Ethan Tobias '12 really just wants some of that homemade matzo ball soup. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias@brown.edu.