From before I learned to speak to the time I graduated high school, I attended the same Jewish school. Class was not only canceled for religious holidays — it revolved around them. In advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, we devoted class time to self-reflection and education on the unique practice of each holiday. When I chose to attend NYU, I knew I was sacrificing these days of preparation, but I also felt at ease knowing that the university allowed me to miss classes on religious holidays.
But within a month of my first year, I quickly fell behind on my schoolwork. Holidays began after the first week of classes, and before I had a chance to make a good impression on my professors, I was already absent from half of my lectures, turning in my assignments late and desperately trying to reschedule presentation dates. My GPA fell before I had the chance to establish myself, and I spent the rest of the semester trying to scrap together the notes I’d missed and prove to my professors that even though I had been absent for half of September’s lectures, I actually did care about their classes.
NYU does, technically, have a policy on religious exemptions. Professors are not allowed to penalize students for being absent for religious reasons, nor should they schedule exams on holidays. But the phrasing of the policy itself is vague and it shifts the responsibility of upholding it to the students, rather than the professors. Students are responsible for notifying teachers in advance of religious absences, students are responsible for rescheduling exams that take place on holidays and students are responsible for bringing grievances if they feel that their rights to religious expression are being infringed upon.
Practicing a religion is already alienating. Belief in God is largely regarded as juvenile and naive, especially at a metropolitan university like NYU. There is an air of superiority that comes with atheism: one that allows my peers to imply that I do not believe in science, that I cherry-pick my preferred parts of ancient texts, that I am just a part of an antiquated system that will die with me. There is an assumption that I haven’t put real thought into my beliefs, and that if I did, it would become clear to me that I’ve made the wrong decision, that my belief in God is immature and I’ve been foolish to think otherwise.
There are many students who don’t mind standing out, and I applaud them — I envy them. But I, and many others like me, just want to fit in. I am not comfortable asserting my beliefs to my non-observant peers. When I mention that I am an Orthodox Jew, friends and superiors suddenly become filled with questions about my vaccination status, my opinions on the state of Israel and whether I happen to know any landlords. I call unwanted attention to myself when I am absent from a string of classes due to religious obligations, when I constantly ask to reschedule presentation dates and when my professors ask me to explain the meaning of Sukkot to the class. I often feel like I am an inconvenience; I never feel like I am at home. None of this is addressed by NYU’s policy — in fact, it is compounded upon.
I don’t mean any of this to say that NYU doesn’t take precautions against religious discrimination. There are many universities that are significantly less accommodating than ours to religious students, and NYU’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated. But because the university technically has a policy in place to address possible instances of religious discrimination when it comes to holidays, everything that isn’t overtly addressed by the policy is swept under the rug. It feels wrong that I have been given extra assignments because I am missing a class trip due to holidays, and it feels wrong that rather than being given extensions for holidays, the due dates of many of my assignments have been pushed forward. But these issues are not addressed by the university’s policy.
There is precedent for NYU to cancel school on religious holidays. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City public school system has made adjustments in its calendar to reflect its students’ various religions — NYC schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Lunar New Year and Eid Al-Fitr, and spring break is scheduled so students don’t have to miss class for Passover, Good Friday and Easter. The New School and the CUNY system — who share faculty with NYU — cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and CUNY schedules its spring break around Passover, Good Friday and Easter. Students have petitioned to cancel classes on religious holidays at NYU on multiple occasions. In 2017, a student petition to factor Jewish holidays into the academic calendar was ignored by the University Senate; last semester, a letter asking NYU to cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and amend its policy to be more forgiving toward due date extensions was backed by student government, but ultimately shot down by the University Senate.
We all deserve the opportunity to celebrate the days we find holy — whether they be Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Diwali, the Lunar New Year or Christmas. But until all students are able to observe without consequence — whatever that consequence may be — NYU’s policy is one of religious exception, not religious acceptance.
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Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]