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Shana Tova! – Sincerely, Duke University

guest column

“Thank you, and let me know what I’ll need to make up.


Dena Levin” 

These particular lines appear in my “sent” box too many times to count this week, each for the same reason. Not sickness, family emergency, or vacation – but to celebrate the holiest days of the Jewish year. Now, I wouldn’t define myself as particularly religious — I do attend Shabbat occasionally to save food points — but as is customary for most Jewish people, I celebrate the High Holy Days. Out of tradition, out of custom, even a little bit out of self-obligation. 

For those unfamiliar with the High Holy Days, these are the days that most Jew-ish students attend synagogue to maintain their relationship with the religion and community… and to redeem themselves for forgetting all of those Shabbats every other day of the year. The two most practiced are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (Happy 5783!), and Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement. These are the days when you reconnect with family, with friends, with the Jewish community, and eat some delicious food – of course after breaking the fast on Yom Kippur. But can you imagine having class on New Years?!

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I attended a high school of perhaps 15 other Jewish families. Our administration recognized at least one of the two most important days of the year, offering many students a reprieve from stressing over missing assignments while at synagogue with their parents and siblings. But Duke’s decision not to recognize these holidays as days off is a slap in the face that hits particularly hard, especially when I introduce this number: 809. 809 is the number of Jewish undergraduate students that attend Duke University. 809 is the number of Jewish students who are forced to make the choice: go to class, or go to synagogue — and potentially miss a test or presentation or graded discussion. And although the Hillel International awards Duke with a medal for being “Top 60 in Jewish Population,” the university clearly does not deserve this honor.

While the infamous “Religious Observance Form” prevents our absences from being unexcused, in reality, Duke annually penalizes its Jewish population for observing their traditions by disregarding our existence. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur most often fall at the end of September and beginning of October, as they do this year, on Sept. 25-27, and Oct. 4-5, respectively. While we all may couple these dates with autumn and the suspenseful lead-up to the NC State Fair, we also associate them with one other thing: Midterms. 

As we reach the middle of our semester and professors begin ramping up the workload, our mental health regularly finds itself on the back burner. Around this time each year, you can find Duke students studying in WU until the glares of the restaurant and facilities employees almost say aloud: “Ok, can you just go to Perkins now?” But for Jewish students, who already feel the stresses of work compounding, the threat of missing important courses preceding an exam often outweighs the value of celebrating the High Holy Days. Perhaps many of these students would not attend services at all, who knows? But when given the choice between religion or GPA, the average Duke student doesn’t have to think that hard. 

I’m sure many non-Jewish students are reading this and thinking to themselves: “Well gee, I’d love to have off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – I could use a mental health day!” And maybe that’s the point. We could all use a proactive — instead of reactive, as they usually are — mental health day, whether to spend at services with friends, nosh on apples and honey, or get some midterm studying out of the way – all in the spirit of Judaism.  

I implore Duke to consider their Jewish students, to prioritize their Jewish students, to see their Jewish students. We are all well accustomed to persevering; after all, that is a core part of Jewish history. The principle of these holidays is a fresh start, a new year, a time to atone for sins; fresh starts we cannot have with midterms on our shoulders and lacking accommodations from administration. What I request at the very least, is the implementation of regulations about what can be done during class time during these dates. Professors can move their midterm to October 7th, I promise it will not be the end of the world. And if they can’t – well, therein lies a message to all 809 of us: you do not matter.

Dena Levin is a Trinity sophomore.


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