Jewish High Holidays Cause Reflection

Every year, the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur creep up on students who observe them in the early fall. The timing of the High Holidays at the start of the academic year as well as the need of many students to remain on campus to celebrate poses some challenges. This year, 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 on 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 slight variations in when the holidays fall. For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, Rosh Hashanah fell during the first full week of classes.

The Colby Student Handbook states that any student needing to miss a class or other course requirement for a religious holiday will be allowed to make it up. Such students are required to tell their professors of their conflict at least two week prior to the holiday. Students can also not be required to attend athletic events, concerts, or lectures if they conflict with a holiday the student observes.

Talia Barrett `23 and Taylor Bechtel `23 reflected on their first round of Jewish High Holidays at the College in an interview with the Echo. Neither first-years chose to miss any 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 said 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 being nervous to email her new professors. “They’re frightening,” she said.

Rachel Powers `21 wrote to the Echo that as a non-religious Jew, deciding to attend class or services is complicated. She wrote 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 the Colby Handbook does allow for religious-based 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 said that she would attend services because she is part of the Jewish community, “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 services for the High Holidays are likely to conflict with many common class times. Colby students generally attend services at Beth Israel Congregation in downtown Waterville, where the morning services for both days of Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur all begin at 9:30am and last until about 12:30pm.

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.

Because at least one of the two holidays usually occurs on a weekday, students are often unable to travel home to celebrate with their families and communities. 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 said “a woman there just gave me a hug and was so friendly. And they don’t know me at all [but] 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.”

“It was nice to be able to not only…go to services in Waterville but to know people from Hillel and go with a group and also having Rabbi Isaacs,” Bechtel said. “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 [the evening of] 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…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.