One of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most disappointing effects on my life has been preventing my family from celebrating the Jewish holiday Passover together.
This isn’t the first year I’ve felt terribly alone during this cherished time. Before coming to Emory, I attended New York City public schools, which intentionally hold spring break during the week of Passover. Emory, however, is open as normal during the Passover holiday, which frustrates me because I am forced to make a difficult choice. The University is required to recognize religious observances as an excuse for missing class, but this year, I decided not to skip a week of work and instruction and instead to suffer the consequences. Because the tradition is important to my Jewish identity, I feel morally uneasy working through the holiday.
While my family and I are atheist, Passover, or Pesach, as it’s called in Hebrew, is nevertheless significant to me as a cultural event and celebration of my heritage. Because I haven’t been home for my family’s Seder since high school, I planned to finally do so this April as a senior. I was excited to cook, eat, sing and reminisce with family, but alas, the pandemic forced me to cancel these plans.
In New York City, public schools close for students and staff on many major holidays of various religions. In 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools would close for two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as well as for Lunar New Year, celebrated by many Asians and Asian Americans. Still, even New York City is far from perfect, as City Councilman Daniel Dromm demonstrated that schools still do not close in observance of the Hindu holiday Diwali.
One might argue that New York City is a special case as it is home to the largest school district in the country with over one million students in one of the most diverse cities on Earth. The running joke is that students never attend school and yet forever stay in school, since the district gives students so many days off but holds classes through the end of June.
Emory prides itself on strong representation of diverse religions, ethnicities, races and cultures, but in order for us to fully include all cultures and creeds, Emory must cancel classes for major holidays across different religions and traditions.
One institution well known for closing during specifically Jewish holidays is Brandeis University (Mass.). Just like Emory’s historical affiliation with the United Methodist Church, Brandeis prides itself on its Jewish roots but does not identify as a religious school, welcoming people of all faiths. Brandeis does not publish data on the religious and spiritual affiliations of students, staff and faculty, and nor does Emory.
Quantifying the populations of different demographics is only one part of the solution, but it could be an important piece. If the University knew that on certain days each year a significant number of students request excused absences, then the University could investigate the importance of that recurring pattern.
Of course, passively tracking statistics is not enough. Dialogue and surveys are needed to discuss which holidays are most important to which communities. Students, faculty and staff should have agency in these decisions.
Especially during this time of loneliness, disease and death, I encourage the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life to advocate for the University to close for major religious holidays. I understand that closing for every holiday celebrated by students would be impossible — I’m not expecting classes to be canceled every March 14 so I can nerd out and bake pi-shaped pies. Choosing which holidays to close the University for would rely on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.
Many Emory community members miss school and work to celebrate important holidays, and it is unfair that the University is passively unsupportive of religious and spiritual minorities. Again, the University is required to accept religious observances as an excused absence, but having to ask for one, as I have done in the past, makes me feel like an outsider. It is unnecessary for me to have to explain myself when people who celebrate Christmas get a free ride. While the U.S. is predominantly Christian, people who live, study and work in the U.S., including Emory, belong to a variety of faiths.
Until Emory reconsiders its academic calendar, I hope administrators can more actively support people of religious and spiritual minorities. I distinctly remember that last December, the College of Arts and Sciences posted “Merry Christmas” on Facebook but said nothing related to Hanukkah. This may seem inconsequential, but it has a strong impact, especially for students who have historically faced discrimination, neglect and exclusion by virtue of their identities.
I’m grateful to be part of an institution that prides itself in diversity and does a lot for its students, but we still have a long way to go. Chag Sameach (happy Passover), especially to the College of Arts and Sciences!
Naomi Keusch Baker (20C) is from New York City.