It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It’s also just Wednesday.
Going to college means experiencing culture shock, including the shock of how others perceive your culture. We get so used to how our Judaism fits into our lives at home and are not always prepared for the ways that will change once at college. Instead of having a calendar that considers all the fall holidays, you find yourself explaining your repeated absences from class. Instead of holiday greetings as you pass people on your way to shul, everyone around you has their backpack on. Instead of exchanging wishes of “gmar chatima tova,” you have to explain, “no, not even water.” Coming from a community where everything shifts on the High Holidays — even for those who aren’t Jewish — I now walk to Hillel passing students on their way to class, because today isn’t any different.
A beautiful thing about Judaism is that there’s always a holiday around the corner, but that can be tricky at college. It’s hard spending holidays on campus and explaining your traditions to people around you because they’ve never met a Jew before. It doesn’t help when schools decide to start classes on Rosh Hashanah or make class registration on Yom Kippur, the most important days on the Jewish calendar.
There are too many incidents of Jewish students being given a hard time about missing class or exams because of a holiday. Students are left combing through the university’s equity policies, talking to campus rabbis, and pleading with professors. In an era when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are listed on most digital and printed calendars, professors should know better when drafting syllabi. The insensitivity and lack of thoughtfulness reinforce the notion that universities do not have their Jewish students’ interest in mind. It puts students in a difficult position: do I dedicate my time to fighting with this professor, or do I just suck it up and go to class? Sadly, too many students are pressured to settle for the latter.
The challenges presented to us while navigating being Jewish in a new environment can be overwhelming, especially when most people around us are going about things as normal — a normal vastly different from ours. But these incidents present the opportunity to find new meaning in these rituals and special days that separate our college experience from those who will be business as usual on our most unusual days. Navigating your individual Jewish experience in a new environment can definitely be difficult, but it also opens up an opportunity to get creative, be independent, and celebrate holidays in new ways.
College is the first time in your adult life that you must find a Jewish community on your own, which can feel lonely, but there’s comfort in the fact that your Jewish peers are facing the same issue. There inevitably comes a holiday where you can’t make it home and are faced with the daunting task of finding a new, different way to have a meaningful holiday experience. The shock you feel watching people go about their day as if it isn’t Rosh Hashanah is felt by the Jews around you, and there’s comfort in seeking out the people in the crowd who are experiencing and perceiving things the same way. So as we enter the Jewish year 5783, approach holidays at school with an open mind, find community, and be proactive in making them meaningful to you.