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Why School Breaks Should Accommodate All Religious Holidays

Sydney Cohen, sophomore and social media chair of Emerson College Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, deals with a challenge not usually discussed in transitioning from high school to college—an increased difficulty observing religious holidays. Her high school gave days off for Jewish holidays, so students could celebrate. At Emerson, that is not the case. “It’s really frustrating because a lot of teachers are not understanding,” says Cohen. Two of her four professors aren’t accommodating of her missing class—they are Christian. 

Many other students who practice religions other than Christianity face these same issues with school calendars not taking their holidays into consideration. They are forced to choose between their academics and religion.

By Massachusetts law and Emerson policy, the school is required to “accommodate students who are absent due to religious observance and to provide them with a reasonable opportunity to make up [work],” according to Emerson’s website. It is illegal for professors to prevent students from catching up on work and taking an excused absence. But even if professors allow students to do the work on their own, they still miss valuable class discussions and lectures. 

As Hanukkah is currently being observed, Cohen explains she isn’t even allowed to light her menorah every night because of restrictions with candles. “We’re told we can get in trouble if they find out,” she says. There should be an exception in this instance, but Emerson hasn’t provided an alternative. 

With a recent anti-semitic attack at the school—where someone wrote hateful speech on a Hillel poster—Hillel met with Jim Hoppe, vice president and director of student life, and Julie Rogers, director of religious and spiritual life, about the attack and other concerns. They also discussed potentially changing the school calendar to accommodate some Jewish holidays to no avail. Cohen seems defeated as she says, “You can say things so many times, but it doesn’t mean they’ll listen to you.”

Jonah Bowen, a sophomore, grew up with a Jewish mom and Christian dad and observes holidays from both religions. His hometown, Warwick, New York, has a small Jewish population, so he always assumed that was why he never had a break for Hanukkah. But Emerson has a fairly large Jewish population, and still, no break. He says, “With all of the progress we’re making, why wouldn’t that be something to consider right now?” 

Part of the issue is a lack of support from the Emerson community.  Ruby Brooks, a sophomore who is Jewish, says she is only ever backed by other Jewish students—no one else seems to notice the issue or even acknowledge Jewish holidays. She wishes faculty were “supportive and aware and flexible.” Emerson preaches how much they care about equality and providing a safe space for their students, but when it comes to action, they’re lacking.  

Cohen says in meetings with Hoppe and Rogers, they seemed skeptical of changing the calendar for Jewish students because then they would have to take off days for other religions as well. But she asks, “Why is that a bad thing?”

Maddie Browning is a journalism major with environmental studies and publishing minors at Emerson College. She has written for other campus publications, including Your Magazine and Atlas Magazine, as well as Colorado Community Media.
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