I don’t observe Yom Kippur. Can I still take off class?

Editor’s note: The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. This letter about Yom Kippur was originally published Sept. 3, 2020. With the 2023 High Holidays upon us,  we’re republishing it. Let us know your thoughts: [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

Do you think it would be okay for me to take off Yom Kippur even if I am not observant? My college roommate is a very actively involved Jewish person who goes to services on the weekends and observes all the holidays. She doesn’t use her phone or laptop, and she organizes a lot of the prayers and services in the community. We’ve lived together for two years.

We were talking about how Rosh Hashanah this year is on the weekend, so she will miss less class than previously. I told her I wish I could take off class for holidays too and she told me I could. My family nominally celebrated the Jewish holidays growing up and I had a bat mitzvah, but as I got older our involvement tapered off, and I’ve never been that interested in Judaism. I like being Jewish, but I definitely don’t follow all the rules.

I think it would be dishonest to email my professors and tell them that I cannot come to class for religious reasons when that is just not true. But now I am intrigued. I could definitely use a break from class. What do you think?

A Jew in Name

Dear Named Jew,

I think you should take off class for Yom Kippur. I understand where you are coming from: Strictly observant Jewish students don’t have a choice, at least not in the way you feel you do, about missing class, and it can be a real sacrifice. For many Jewish students (and, later on, Jewish employees), it’s often hard to get others to understand that taking off time for the holidays is not a vacation or voluntary. It’s admirable that you don’t want to misrepresent yourself, or your fellow students, by suggesting you have this same hardship.

But you’re Jewish too. You have every equal right to claim this heritage whenever, and however, you want it, regardless of how you’ve practiced up until this point. This is not pretending to be something you are not in order to miss class; this is you claiming something you already own. You don’t have to sacrifice for your Judaism to be worthy of accommodation.

Let’s say you were at an event with both meat and vegetarian meal options, and you wanted the vegetarian option, even though you eat meat. Maybe it sounded tastier, or maybe you are trying to reduce your meat consumption. With your current framing, it sounds like you are worried that asking for a vegetarian meal would dishonestly portray you as a full-time vegetarian.

If there were scarce options, you would be right to be concerned; somebody who could eat meat should not take a vegetarian meal if that would mean that a vegetarian would go without food. But you taking off time doesn’t preclude someone else from doing the same. In fact, the more normalized it is to take time off, the more comfortable it will be for other Jewish students to do the same. If the event, for example, had enough vegetarian and meat options for everybody, it would be silly to not order your preferred meal.

Yom Kippur is not something you need to earn the right to observe. Think about it this way: Christian students don’t have to worry about whether they should take off Christmas even if they don’t attend Mass. They have the time off no matter how they choose to spend it. You have the same right to decide how to use your holidays.

You do have an obligation to your professor, and to your education, not to miss class willy-nilly. But this is a totally responsible reason to miss class. Even if you spend the whole day napping, just writing that email to your professor explaining you won’t come in on Yom Kippur claims your Jewish identity for yourself in ways that might prove surprisingly meaningful (or not — which is also fine).

I’ve made the case for why, regardless of how you spend the time, you are not doing anything wrong or deceptive by missing class on Yom Kippur. That said, can I make a case for using the time intentionally, if you do clear your schedule?

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It’s a time to reconcile with people in our lives, reflect on our relationships, and engage with forgiveness for past wrongs. It might be worth checking out if Judaism speaks differently to you now than it did in high school.

That might mean trying some Jewish services, dropping into a relevant discussion organized by Jewish students, borrowing a Yom Kippur prayer book to read on your own, or taking some focused time to go on a hike or meditate or read. Your roommate might be able to suggest more options, too. You don’t have to observe Yom Kippur in a traditional way to still make it a meaningful time for you.

And if you do decide to engage in a more formal way, don’t feel shy or out of place! It can be intimidating to roll up to a new Jewish community where it feels like everybody knows each other and what they’re doing; the desire to flee will likely arise.

Stick it out.

Remember: This is your heritage, you own it too, and you belong.


Do you have an opinion about this Bintel, or a question of your own? We’d love to hear from you. Email [email protected].

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