Penn State doesn’t cancel classes for High Holy Days, irking students

Penn State doesn’t cancel classes for High Holy Days, irking students

UNIVERSITY PARK — Jewish students in New York have a few advantages over Jewish students from Pennsylvania, such as closer proximity to quality delis and a greater population of Jewish neighborhoods.
Something Penn State lacks gives the New Yorkers another advantage — canceled classes for High Holy Days.
At Penn State, no classes are canceled on the Jewish high holidays, but absences are excused for any student wishing to observe, said Karen Schultz, the university registrar.
The State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and other SUNY schools’ 2010-2011 academic calendars read that from 6 p.m. Sept. 8 through 6 p.m. Sept. 9, this year’s Rosh Hashana, classes were canceled. The same policies were implemented for Yom Kippur this fall, beginning at 6 p.m., Sept. 17.
“Classes being canceled shows that my university recognizes the importance and holiness of these two holidays,” SUNY student Tara Kotkin, a senior studying psychology, said.
While no classes are canceled on the High Holy Days at Penn State, absences are excused for any student wishing to observe.
Determining when Penn State lets off for holidays is “tricky,” Schultz said, because the university has 15-week semesters, canceling classes only for Labor Day, Independence Day, Martin Luther King Day and Memorial Day.
Michal Berns, the president of Penn State Hillel and a senior majoring in media studies, who moved to the United States from Jerusalem before starting at Penn State, said she hasn’t had an easy time adjusting to the High Holy Days here. At first, she said she couldn’t even fathom why other students weren’t fasting on Yom Kippur, let alone attending class.
“I had a hard time understanding how a college campus can’t possibly give off for the High Holy Days in general when they in fact do have so many religious student organizations on campus,” Berns said.
Berns said she recognizes the sensitivity and complexity of this issue, despite her hard time with it. It is university policy that professors may not penalize students for missing classes during religious holidays, said Ron Pangborn, dean for undergraduate studies, and he said he implores all professors to keep standards fair for missing class.
“We wouldn’t allow a professor to not let a student make up a quiz, for example,” he said.
The 40,000-plus student body at Penn State belongs to many different religions, according to Pangborn, and the only way to fairly accommodate them all is allowing for absences on holidays.
Berns said this policy does not comfort religious students in knowing they will be able to easily make up missed classwork.
“If I miss class with important notes because of my religious affiliation I end up screwing myself over, she said. “No one in the class will help make up the notes, unless I have a friend in the classroom.”
Dual Jewish studies and English professor Benjamin Schreier said he has “ambivalent” feelings about the university’s policy, noting that the university could not afford the time off of allowing all religious sects to cancel classes on holidays.
Jewish students at University Park make up about 10 percent of the student population, according to Penn State Hillel.

(Ashley Gold can be reached at