Jewish High Holidays Cause Reflection

The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come and passed. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began Sept. 29 at sundown and ended on Oct. 1 at sundown. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, was Oct. 8 at sundown and lasted until sundown the next day.

All Jewish holidays span from sundown to sundown and are on a lunar calendar, which accounts for the fluctuation of when the holidays fall throughout the year. For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, Rosh Hashanah fell during the first full week of classes.

The timing of the High Holidays early in the academic year as well as the need of many students to remain on campus poses some challenges for those observing.

The Colby Student Handbook states that “the College will enable any student to make up any course requirements scheduled during a religious holiday that is observed by that student. Students are expected to inform course instructors within two weeks of the beginning of the term of any religious observance that will conflict with coursework. The faculty member will then work with the student to find a reasonable accommodation that will allow the student to complete the academic work. In addition, no student will be required to participate in college events such as athletic commitments, lectures, or concerts on these holidays.”

Talia Barrett `23 and Taylor Bechtel `23 reflected on these challenges in an interview with the Echo. Neither first-years chose to miss classes for the holidays. Bechtel  said, “I was scared. And also, I just have a lot of work so I feel like, not that I have to go to class but that I should. Just not to fall behind. But I feel like that’s a freshman thing.”

When asked if she ever missed classes in high school, Bechtel recalled that “my school actually let off for the high holidays so I didn’t have to.”

“Me too,” Barrett said, “I’m not [missing class], same as Taylor, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a freshman thing, I’ll probably do it next year.”

Maddy Albert `20 commented to the Echo that “that’s not just a freshman thing.”

Bechtel explained that one of the main factors that held her back from missing class was that she “was very nervous to email my professors, I haven’t done that yet. So I haven’t, I didn’t email them about this, I know, they’re frightening.”

Rachel Powers ‘`1 wrote the Echo that as a non-religious Jew, deciding to attend class or not is confusing. She explained that “in many ways, contextualizing the High Holidays in my Colby experience has confused me about my Jewish identity. I don’t practice Judaism as a religion, but culturally Jewish life has become more important to me since coming to Maine and leaving my home.”

Powers acknowledged that “While Colby does mandate that students be given excused absences, the reality for most Jews is that their professors are often not very accommodating, and missing class becomes incredibly burdensome. I have not attended services since coming to college, but often that leaves me with questions about place and belonging in this community; what does it mean for me to opt in and out of my traditions and heritage?”

She continued: “I want to support those I love in my community by being present for their practice and getting to share that with them, but my own lack of faith has made me feel that my participation is not “worth it” as it will hinder my studies. I wish I felt more comfortable in claiming my own exercise of Jewish life, without feeling that the broader part of campus won’t truly support me.”

The High Holiday schedule is indeed conflictory with many common class times. Colby students generally attend services held at Beth Israel Congregation in downtown Waterville. Rosh Hashanah evening services were held at 5:30, first day services at 9:30-12:30, and second day services at 9:30.

Yom Kippur first evening services were at 6:30, daytime services at 9:30, second evening services at 5:00.

One challenge that some students face specifically pertaining to Yom Kippur is that it is customary to fast during the day. This can make it difficult to attend even those courses which don’t conflict directly with a service.

Students often remain on campus for the holidays given that they more often than not occur on weekdays. Barrett lamented “I’m used to going with my family and kind of doing the same thing every year.”

Despite not being able to be home with their families, new students had positive experiences at Beth Israel Congregation. Barrett relayed: “it’s been good. Something that really stuck out was just walking in and how welcoming everyone was, some woman there just gave me a hug and was so friendly and they don’t know me at all and Rabbi Isaacs came up to Taylor and me and asked us our names and where we’re from and I think that was super cool that we’re very new to the congregation but everyone was super welcoming.”

Bechtel shared in Barrett’s sentiment of feeling welcomed far from home. “My high holidays experience has been very pleasant and it was nice to be able to not only just to be able to go to services in Waterville but to know people from Hillel and go with a group and also having Rabbi Isaacs, that there were so many Colby students there and it was just cool to experience the holidays in a different way than home, being able to have two different experiences.” Barrett chimed in “that’s true!”

Nina Leiman ‘21, one of the presidents of Colby Hillel, the Jewish student group on campus, wrote to the Echo that “Although I miss being with my family on the high holidays and sometimes the melodies [of the prayers] are different than the ones I grew up with, I feel extremely lucky to have been so warmly welcomed into such a familiar community all the way across the country. I look forward to Rabbi [Isaacs’] brilliant sermons and the amazing food on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Albert also highlighted the work of Beth Israel’s Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, saying that she “is such an engaging and thoughtful leader and really keeps in mind her audience, particularly that there are a lot of Colby students, her congregation, not her audience, and is just a general force so I am honestly honored to get to hear her speak I always think a lot after her sermons, they always leave me thinking.”

An anonymous student told the Echo that “High Holidays are very intimate and meaningful. I love going to Beth Israel for services with the community, it is always very welcoming. The thing I miss the most from home is the big break fast with my family and friends. We’ve been going to the same house since I was born and I always miss seeing them around the holidays.”

Colby Hillel provides rides to and from services and also holds an end of fast meal, called a break fast, catered by Bagel Mainea in Augusta, to conclude Yom Kippur.