Last Sunday marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and the start of the High Holidays. But in broader terms, it marked the beginning of an annual three-week period lasting through Simchat Torah that is virtually consumed by Jewish holidays. In Baltimore, this equates to a steady stream of Jews who will temporarily withdraw from daily life by missing school or work to repent and reflect on the past year, as well as celebrate the new.
The abundance of holidays sometimes can create pragmatic challenges for Jews observing them, as it does for Doni Mayer, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Mayer estimates he will be absent from 20 classes over a total of seven days in observance of the holidays.
“I have to email all my professors to make sure I’m not missing anything important and that they’re not going to take off points from those assignments,” he said.
Mayer said this year is more challenging due to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur falling on weekdays, whereas last year, Yom Kippur was on a Saturday. He anticipates a number of other students at UMBC missing the same amount of class time.
“The professors are very understanding, so most of them understand the religious holidays, and they know the school policy,” he said.
Mayer grew up in Pikesville and attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, where he became accustomed to not having school on any of these holidays. He said the transition to college was “pretty intense,” but that dealing with makeup work is a small price to pay for the spiritual experience of the holidays.
Following the High Holidays is Sukkot on Sept. 28 and 29, Shmini Atzeret on Oct. 5 and Simchat Torah on Oct. 6.
Rabbi Debbie Pine, the executive director of Johns Hopkins Hillel, said the holidays are a “wonderful and exciting time on campus” and that the timing of the High Holidays works out nicely with the beginning of the academic year.
“What’s really meaningful about this work is for the first time in our students’ lives, they are making a decision about how to celebrate,” she said.
Pine said there are about 600 students total in Hillel and half to one-third of them typically show up for Erev Rosh Hashanah services. Beyond that, she said, students do other activities such as gracing nursing homes with the sound of the shofar, building a sukkah outside the school dining hall and handing out apples and honey.
“It’s never just about services or just about a meal,” she said. “It’s really very broad.”
Pine said she recognizes the difficulties of observing the holidays as a full-time student.
“In a religious academic environment like Hopkins it’s very difficult to miss class,” she said.
At Towson University’s Hillel, many students stay on campus and attend services offered there, said the executive director, Noam Bentov, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Leadership in Jewish Education & Communal Service and said the class will be canceled during Yom Kippur.
“The university’s very understanding and very supportive of students wanting to celebrate their identity,” he said.
The High Holidays often have an effect on universities that is felt across more than simply the Jewish student body. In UMBC’s Judaic Studies program, a number of faculty members take timeoff to observe the High Holidays themselves in addition to canceling class. Chairwoman Michele Osherow said professors who do this must make up the hours lost by having their students engage in an alternative learning experience. She said this year, an instructor who is teaching a course on modern Jewish history will cancel class for the holidays but take the students on a field trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday in October.
“There are ways of learning beyond the classroom,” she said. “The student is also engaging in instruction and engaging in learning.”
Osherow, in her 13th year at UMBC, said the provost’s office issues a memo at the beginning of the year alerting all faculty to the High Holidays. She said students generally do a good job letting her know of their absences through email.
“I have never required a student to prove to me if they are going to be in synagogue observing a holiday,” she said.
Osherow said this year most faculty will observe the High Holidays, but this is not the case with the students.
“Most of the students in my Judaic studies courses are not Jewish,” she said.
Grade schools vary in their observance of the Jewish holidays, with many Jewish day schools canceling class for Sukkot. Baltimore County Public Schools were closed Monday and will close for Yom Kippur this Wednesday. But Baltimore City Public Schools remain open for the High Holidays. Spokeswoman Arezo Rahmani said students who miss class for a religious observance will be excused, but the system has never closed for the High Holidays.
“We’ve never really seen an indication to need to,” she said. “Our attendance rates haven’t been a concern.”
Just as the public schools are prepared to accommodate observant Jews, large employers such as the University of Maryland Medical System also take this into account, said spokeswoman Karen Lancaster.
“While we don’t specifically track those statistics, as with any religious holiday, we encourage flexibility among our managers to allow employees time off to observe the holidays of their faith,” she said. “Of course, hospitals provide patient care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our clinicians and other staff collaborate in creating schedules for the whole year to accommodate holiday time off.”
One downtown spot that will observe the holidays is the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which will be closed for all of the Jewish holidays, including Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. It will be open during the intervening days. Deputy Director Deborah Cardin said because the museum is an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, it maintains a highly observant schedule. She added that the majority of the museum’s employees are Jewish.
Cardin said these holidays typically coincide with the opening of their fall exhibit and that planning must begin early.
“We really have to build in the time and take into account the holiday schedule,” she said.
The museum’s upcoming exhibit on Paul Simon will open Oct. 11, giving staff members a short amount of time to prepare.
“It puts a lot of pressure on our staff to do all the work that needs to be done on a compressed schedule,” she said.
People like to bifurcate things but the truth of the matter is the weight of the High Holidays is really just a reflection of what I believe being a spiritual personal is all about.
“Observant Jews will take the day off, but there really would be no impact to county services,” she said. “It would be no different than if a Christian were taking off Good Friday.”
One alteration this year will be a temporary halt to roadwork on Old Court Road, where a resurfacing project has led to lane closures and flagging operations. County Councilwoman Vicki Almond made this request “out of respect to the community she represents and the fact that her staff will be at services,” said her spokesman, Jonathan Schwartz. David Peake, an engineer with the Maryland State Highway Administration, responded to her in an email, assuring her they would comply with the request.
“Our maintenance managers for this area wide project have asked the contractor to suspend lane closures at this location on 9/14, 9/15, 9/22, and 9/23,” he wrote. “This project is scheduled to be complete late November.”
Peake also wrote that there will be no planned construction during these days at the I-695 interchanges with Park Heights Avenue and Stevenson Road, but that the Park Heights interchange would remain in its current construction pattern with one lane in each direction.
The temporary changes to society brought on by the holidays may be seen as an obstacle to some, but Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation cautions people not to overlook the importance of this time.
“From a rabbinical perspective, it’s a very powerful thing to have so much time to focus and be in synagogue and be with family,” he said.
Mintz said the work of becoming a better person during the High Holidays requires commitment and compared it to training for a marathon.
“You have to be in it for the long haul,” he said.
Mintz said he understands the stress so much disruption can cause, but argues that slowing down the pace of one’s life ultimately leads to greater
“I think religion in general can become that, [a pain],” he said. “But because we are spending so much time and it matters, I really encourage people to acquire knowledge and become educated about the power of the holidays.”
Mintz said Judaism should not be viewed as a sector of someone’s life but rather a method by which a person lives his or her life.
“People like to bifurcate things but the truth of the matter is the weight of the High Holidays is really just a reflection of what I believe being a spiritual personal is all about,” he said.
Rochelle Kaplan, co-director of the Chabad Center and Lubavitch of Maryland, said the order of the holidays could be likened to the way in which the human body operates.
“Starting with Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, the head is pretty much the main part of the body that incorporates all the other organs,” she said. “So the head is where we get all the steam for our engines. It helps when we get off to a good start, then everything follows the rest of the year.”