It was the day before Yom Kippur when Alyssa Basch met a friend for coffee. It was then that she learned about the trouble her friend, as well as other Jewish students at American University in Washington, had when trying to juggle fasting and attending classes.
Basch, who is not Jewish, felt the school could do more to accommodate Jewish students. So in late September, she posted a petition to Change.org calling on American University to make Yom Kippur a non-instructional day. As of Dec. 1, the petition has garnered some 560 signatures.
“Yom Kippur takes both a mental and physical toll on students,” Basch said in an interview, explaining why she wasn’t calling for non-instructional days on Rosh Hashanah. “This high holiday in particular, I just think it’s so essential that students not only have the time to actually focus on inner reflection and on their religious practices, but also have the time to properly recover.”
The university has a policy of excusing absences for religious holidays and asks professors to avoid scheduling exams or other critical activities on widely observed holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, according to Jason Benkendorf, executive director of American University Hillel. Students are expected to speak with their professors ahead of time in order to make the necessary arrangements.
“While faculty are overwhelmingly accommodating, missing class can still be challenging for students,” Benkendorf said. “We hear each year from students who are not entirely comfortable attending class on the high holidays but end up choosing to do so because they worry about falling behind.”
Having no lectures to attend on Yom Kippur or assignments to make up would make life a lot easier for Jewish students like junior Halle Jaymes, president of AU Students for Israel. Jaymes said the petition is “big news” among the school’s Jewish community. She signed it along with her parents and many of her Jewish friends.
“I just don’t think that Jewish students should have to sacrifice their religious identity and values for an hour-long lecture,” Jaymes said.
Attending class while fasting for Yom Kippur can make it difficult to concentrate, Jaymes said, adding that having the day off would allow more students to attend services.
Jaymes said her Jewish professors are understanding when she requests to take Yom Kippur off. But, on occasion, she’s encountered some teachers who are skeptical of her motives.
“When I told a professor I’m not going to be here for Yom Kippur, they’ll be like, really? Like, do you really need to miss? Are you really going to be observing the holiday or is it just like a day off? And I feel they’re really uncomfortable questions to answer,” Jaymes said. “And I think it would be a lot easier for the Jewish students at AU to be able to have that day off without question.”
AU student Rebecca Moran-Scoratow wrote in the petition’s comment section that on Yom Kippur she fasted and attended class.
“Of course, I could have emailed my professors and said I had a religious obligation. But missing a class and missing important information is not an option for a time like this,” she wrote.
The university’s student newspaper, The Eagle, spoke to several Jewish students on the issue. Lilliana Silver said that having to worry about making up school work can distract from fully observing Yom Kippur. She said the holiday “should be a non-instructional day so that Jewish students don’t have to feel pressured in making the decision of either going to class or observing their religion.”
Sara Wiser told The Eagle that she struggled this year to balance doing her course work with observing Yom Kippur.
“You have to almost make a choice of what’s more important to you; observing the day or getting your work in so you can get a good grade,” Wiser said.
Basch said her goal is to organize a meeting between school officials and Jewish students to discuss the concerns. She said that so far she has struggled to get much feedback from school administrators on the petition, but that it has gotten people talking about the issue.
“I’m very glad that [the petition] has been received so well, especially among the students,” Basch said. “I don’t think it’s the number of signatures needed to change AU’s current policies, but rather just a forceful push in the right direction.”
An American University spokesperson provided the following statement regarding the petition:
“We have received the petition and it is in the hands of university leadership for review. American University has long been committed to the inclusion of all faiths and we support our students in their religious life and practices. We have a stated policy of providing reasonable religious accommodations for major religious holidays, and that policy is communicated to faculty at the start of the academic year with a recommendation that they include the information in their syllabus information for students. These policies currently support our Jewish students’ individual ability to observe Yom Kippur as a non-instructional day without academic penalty.”