Lack of religious absence policy inexcusable

By Opinions Editor

For those raised in Christian traditions, religious holidays are typically joyous occasions that entail a break from school and work and the chance to celebrate with loved ones. From kindergarten through college, school breaks are conveniently designed to provide students and staff time off around Christmas and Easter. However, for students of other religions and cultures, holidays that overlap with class or work can be stressful.

This year, the holiest days of the Jewish year occurred midweek in September. 

I asked my Jewish friends from Hillel, Columbia’s Jewish student organization, about their plans for the holidays—typical observation includes going to services, symbolic rituals and celebratory meals. To my surprise, most students said they would be in class. Some voiced a complete disinterest in stepping inside a synagogue, but most of my peers expressed a desire to observe the holidays, yet voiced an overwhelming concern about missing classes. Some complained of tough professors who emphasize in-class participation while others were afraid to fall behind early in the semester.

The dates of Jewish holidays change year-to-year, as they are based on the lunar Hebrew calendar, while the Gregorian calendar is based on a solar model. Of the 10 major Jewish holidays, five occurred this year in September and the first week of October between Monday and Wednesday. Traditionally, Jews are not permitted to “work” on these holidays. In Judaism, work is not defined as an occupation or a way to make money. Work includes writing, using technology, spending money and an abundance of other prohibitions considered parts of daily life. By abstaining from these run-of-the-mill actions, some feel the holiday being observed becomes more sacred and meaningful.

It would be nearly impossible to miss school and work for each holiday, as some last multiple days. As a fairly observant Jew, I resolved to miss class for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are considered the most important holidays. In my three semesters at Columbia, I have had very understanding professors who have never questioned my sincerity. However, nearly every professor has had a different response. Some professors required work to be turned in before the missed classes. Others penalized my attendance grade. One professor emailed me back unsure whether religious absences can even be excused at the college. Many students have seen a lack of consistency in how religious absences are handled.

Jewish students are not the only ones forced to choose between their religion and school. Muslim, Baha’i and Hindu holidays also coincide with school and work days throughout the year. Currently, the college has no policy in place regarding how professors should accommodate religious absences.

The only acknowledgment of religious holiday observance at Columbia can be found in an FAQ guide emailed from the Provost’s Office to faculty and staff on Aug. 18 regarding mandatory attendance laws. Under new federal regulations, undergraduate students who receive federal financial aid are required to attend class during the first two weeks. Professors are responsible for reporting this attendance to the college. The FAQ guide says, “If a student is absent from any class for religious holiday observance, has been otherwise participating and actively engaged in the course, and notifies you of the reason for their absence, the student should not be marked as non-attending.” 

This statement is not available on Columbia’s website, nor is it binding and comprehensive. Jewish holidays coincided with the first two weeks of school—how can a professor determine if a student has been participating if the student has to miss the course’s first classes?

Many local private colleges and universities have a clear policy available in the student handbook or online regarding how professors should handle religious absences. Northwestern University requires course syllabi to outline every due date so religious students can plan accordingly. Roosevelt University requires students to notify professors two weeks in advance of their anticipated absence. At the University of Chicago, students can note which holidays they observe in the student portal. All three universities prohibit faculty from penalizing students for missing class due to a religious observance. 

A clear and accessible policy outlined by Columbia’s administration about religious absences would benefit both students and faculty. As a private institution, Columbia is not required to provide accommodations for religious practices, according to the Anti-Defamation League. However, Columbia prides itself on being diverse and inclusive, which should extend to religious students. Students should be able to observe religious holidays without stressing about whether a professor will allow them to make up the work.