Opinion: Jewish students should not have to choose between school and religion

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Noel Lee/The Occidental

These past two weeks were the High Holy Days — three full days of temple services that recognize the Jewish new year — and my first time celebrating away from my home. My relationship with Judaism is unique: even though I am culturally Jewish, both my parents are atheists. I was about 10 years old when I decided to pursue a less secular form of Judaism. It was then that I began attending every High Holy Day service. This year was the first time that I didn’t.

Due to Occidental College’s Religious Absence Policy, which only allots two excused absences per full school year for religious holidays, I had to choose which of the three services to attend. Students must email Director for Religious and Spiritual Life Susan Young the specifics of what classes they will miss, so it can be recorded and ensured students don’t miss more than their allotted two absences. The policy requires students to sort through their calendar and rank what is and isn’t important in their religion.

I recently reached out to my Jewish friends to see if they were also struggling with this policy. I expected mutual frustration and anxiety. Instead, I was met with a friend saying she was just happy to get what she could. I was taken aback and thought she might be right.

The balance between being grateful for what you have and having your needs met can sometimes be a tricky one. Coming from a minority religion, like Judaism, sometimes getting any recognition feels like a gift. It is especially hard to ask for more when we are historically told not to.

The policy targets students in minority religions because Christian holidays are often built into the academic calendar. Admittedly Good Friday is not given off, but time off for Christmas is built into winter break; whereas Chanukka, a time meant to be spent with family, aligns with the reading days before finals. Jewish students will likely spend the evenings under the LED library lights, instead of candle lights. The religious absence policy also differs from other types of absences. Although Occidental’s official policy for athletic absences is not published, through talking with athletes, it seems they only have the obligation to report to their professor and are able to take an unlimited number of absences for games and/or meets.

We knew what we were getting into in terms of religious absence when we applied and enrolled. There are schools out there that are set up around Jewish students, for example Yeshiva University. And, although there are benefits to going to schools set up around one’s religion, there is also a loss of perspective from people who come from different cultures and religions. Occidental’s mission statement claims an education of the highest quality will be given to a “diverse group.” We can’t have one without the other; our school’s diversity of people and perspectives helps make the school “high quality.” It is careless to promote this mission, and then lack policies that provide accommodations for all students. The religious students at Occidental shouldn’t have to choose between being able to practice our religion and attending the school we love.

There may be a concern that students will take too many days off, or use a more open policy to ditch class for non-religious reasons. Speaking as a student who has had to miss classes for my religion, there are built-in consequences that discourage students from taking time off. Missing class means you’re not there to hear your classmates’ questions or ask your own and creates a significant buildup of work. If a student feels strongly enough about their need to miss class, ultimately many just won’t attend even if they don’t have an excused absence. At a small school like Occidental, we have a close enough relationship with our professors for them to know if we are taking an unreasonable amount of holidays off.

More flexible policies are not uncommon. USC has a policy that simply requires students to inform their professors in advance about their religious holiday but does not limit the number of days students request. Pitzer College has a similar policy that doesn’t require students to go through a separate office nor does it set a limit on the number of holidays. Oberlin College also does not limit religious absences and even refrains from holding classes on Yom Kippur. Occidental should take these examples into consideration when creating policies regarding religious exemptions from class.

At the end of the day, although the policy likely has no antisemitic intentions, we must remember there is a long history of Jews being denied the right to practice their religion. Although we appreciate the two days, it is not enough. The policy must change in order for all students at Occidental to freely and fully practice their religion. We should not be afraid to ask for what we need — a new policy that allows students to work one on one with their professors and does not limit the number of days we can take off.