Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

A rabbi blows a shofar on Ho plaza, with students watching and listening, during Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 8 2021.

October 6, 2022

Jewish Students Observe Yom Kippur in the Midst of Classes

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From Oct. 4-5, Jewish students observed Yom Kippur despite not having a Cornell-sanctioned day off for the holiday. 

Cornell Hillel is a cornerstone for students looking to observe Jewish holidays on campus, as it offers services during the night and day inclusive to all of the various denominations of Judaism. 

For many Jewish students, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, marks the end of the 10-day period that starts on Rosh Hashanah. The holiday focuses on asking forgiveness for wrongs that were committed over the past year. 

“It’s one of the holiest times of the year because you do a lot of reflecting on who you are and who you’ve been,” said Simone Shteingart ’24, vice president of engagement for Cornell Hillel.

One of the unique events that Hillel hosts is a reverse tashlich. Typically, the tashlich ceremony consists of throwing bread into water to atone for sins. Reverse tashlich is a new interpretation of this traditional ceremony, where students pick up and properly dispose of litter as a way to observe the holy day. 

According to Clyde Lederman ’26, he was excited to go to Hillel’s “Break the Fast” event, where people gather for a communal meal at the end of fasting. Lederman said he usually has a meal to break fast with his family, and this is the first year that won’t be happening. 

For many students, Jewish groups on campus serve as their main resource for continuing religious practices away from home. 

“A big part of the holidays is gathering with family, so it’s definitely an adjustment,” said Sami Albert ’25, chair of cultural programming for Hillel.

Despite 21 percent of Cornell’s student population falling within the Jewish faith, the University did not observe a campus-wide holiday. Discussion around this topic has been long standing — a 1987 opinion piece in The Sun articulates the historical double standard pertaining to religious holidays in Cornell’s academic calendar. 

While professors are often accommodating, the academic calendar does not offer breaks to those who observe Yom Kippur. 

“If you take time off, things are still happening and it could be a little bit stressful and complicated when the rest of life is moving and you want to partake in this holiday,” Shteingart said. “So, when there are classes you don’t want to miss, are you going to go to services or go to class?” 

Shteingart suggested that the pressure placed on students to ‘not fall behind’ limits the degree to which Jewish students can fully engage in the celebration of the holiday.

However, when students struggled to ask professors for accommodations, the Hillel staff and student executive board became a helpful resource. 

Despite Hillel’s willingness to help students balance the practice of their faith with their academics, many still wish that the University would do more in order to accomodate students during religious holidays.

While students have the ability to observe the holiday through groups on campus, the lack of a campus-wide day off means that they’re faced with a choice between school work and observing the holy day. 

“It does put some students at a bit of [a] disadvantage if you choose to engage in all of the programming available for the holiday,” Shteingart said.

According to Lederman, while for him observing takes precedence, as a student there are some realistic obligations.

“Sometimes it’s about uncomfortably marrying the two of those, which I sort of feel the pressure to do now,”  Lederman said. “I’ll have to be hungry and go to school at the same time.”