Thoughts on why students should skip class for Yom Kippur:
As a Rabbi and teacher and parent, I’m not one to advocate for skipping classes. The primary purpose and function of a University is to get your education, and you ought to maximize every opportunity to do so. Get work done on time, invest of yourself in your studies, keep focused and show up. Or think of it this way: You are here, you might as well get the grades!
And you all know that we really don’t like to pressure, we don’t push, we deeply appreciate everything that all of you do no matter your level of observance, and we’re totally not into guilt or that kind of thing… But there are also times when you should be skipping classes. Not to sleep in or play video games or nurse a hangover, or because you don’t like the teacher or the course but for real stuff, genuine reasons. Now, lets’ talk Yom Kippur. Yes, UChicago has classes on Yom Kippur (they pushed off 1st day of class for Rosh Hashana). And it’s true that you will have to make up the work, or catch up on the notes. And that’s inconvenient or even difficult. And there are pressures of all types. All that may be true, but still, people make sacrifices for what is dearest to them.
Here’s a bunch of reasons (just a starter list, really) why you should skip classes and work for Yom-Kippur (and skip means to attend services or observe this holiest of days in meaningful ways, not just to get out of class).
(1) It’s Yom Kippur for G-d’s sake! Jews vary in their levels and styles of observance, and not all keep all the holidays the same way. But Yom Kippur is that one holiday that nearly all Jews (no matter which movement) keep (in the way that they observe it) so much so that even non-Jews are quite familiar with it. Now, to be honest, all this fasting and praying doesn’t make it my favorite holiday (we have upcoming Sukkot and Simchat Torah for that) but when it comes to the single holiest day of the year, hands-down its Yom Kippur. The bible calls Yom Kippur that “one day a year” it is a day set apart. Making it different is what makes it special.
(2) It’s the law! Yes, Illinois (and other states) have laws on the books mandating accommodations and no penalty for absences and even allowances for travel time, among other accommodations for religious observances. The law sticks up for our religious rights, so let’s exercise them! And official UChicago policy backs it right up. There’s clear guidelines for both students and faculty to allow for this very thing (not only for Yom Kippur btw, but even for holidays like Sukkot, Simchat Torah, 2nd days of Passover etc). We have found professors to be accommodating and understanding in the vast majority of cases, especially when accompanied by an explanatory clergy letter (which we write for you) and when given decent advance notice.
(3) Let’s read up on and remember some Jewish history. We’ve become quite comfortable in America and easily forget how just a few generations ago, going all the way back to centuries ago, how much Jews struggled and sacrificed to keep the holidays. There are moving, harrowing, inspiring stories from the Holocaust ghettos and concentration camps, from Russia under the Communists, from the Spanish Inquisition, why even the Chanukah story is all about this. Our ancestors risked their lives for Jewish observance, they stuck with it despite tremendous adversity and harsh persecution. How much more so should we, with much lighter and easier challenges!
(4) College is our formative years. For many it’s our first taste of independence, real decision-making and crafting our own identities. The choices we make now leave a lasting imprint and impact on our futures. Taking a stand now for a Jewish observance is something we keep for life. Like the old Choose Your Own Adventure series, choices we make earlier on have a tremendous influence on future choices ahead. The small steps we make in college will be giant steps when we start to build our own families later on.
(5) One thing we’ve found pretty consistent over our UChicago years: Americans, especially fellow college students, respect you for the things you respect. Suite-mates, classmates, even professors, of all faiths and no faiths, most people will respect a student who stands for something or believes in something or lives with or for something. As long as you treat others with respect as well. There’s a lot of tolerance and understanding out there. Much more than you might think. Sometimes we are much more afraid than we need to be.
(6) There are ways basically keep the Jewish law and maybe just sit through classes and not take tests or something. That’s a big step too. A lot of people do that for other holidays. But really, for a day like Yom Kippur, it ought to be a day set apart, a day of “At-ONE-ment”, not just another weekday that has some fasting and a bunch of prayers. Here’s where the spirit of the law kicks in. It’s not merely Yom Kippur technical observance, it is also Yom Kippur atmosphere, the Yom Kippur experience. So the more you can make it that way, the better.
(7) Yes, it is a lot of praying. We have a few posts online now about the length of the service and ways to view that: My colleague Mendel Rubin has a fun post about this There’s a Monster at the end of this Machzor and here’s one about the prayer book in the Russian gulag Greenberg’s Yom Kippur Machzor for perspective. The super-important main parts you should really be there for are the two evening services: Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur and Neilah at the closing end of Yom Kippur, the first and last hours. Obviously, the more you can be there the better, but those two hours are easiest for people and tend to be most meaningful.
(8) Let’s be honest. We miss classes anyways and for reasons far less significant than Yom Kippur. Who hasn’t overslept? Or been out with friends? sometimes we miss class to be there for a friend who needs us or maybe you traveled away for a family event or occasion? or just relied on a friend to get the notes? Some have missed classes for concerts, for show debuts, for having the sniffles. Let’s give Yom Kippur its due!
(9) Fasting is hard. Agreed. I’m not a great faster myself. Some try sleep in to help with fasting. They’ve got a point, fasting is a huge Mitzvah for Yom Kippur. And some sleeping in is OK. But while you might miss the morning prayer or most of it, please please try be there again for the afternoon/evening prayer, especially for Neilah, the closing prayer on the last hour of the fast. Sleeping through the whole thing may help you fast easier but that will miss out on many of the meaningful gifts and experiences that Yom Kippur has to offer.
(10) and.. Yom Kippur isn’t just for G-d, it is for ourselves as well. There are benefits to a meaningful Yom Kippur. We don’t always see this, but if we try and invest of yourself, we can…
Wishing all of our dear beloved UChicago friends a very meaningful Yom Kippur, an easy fast, and much success in all of your studies!
Rabbi Yossi Brackman
My thanks to Rabbi Mendel Rubin for inspiring this message.