The University of Wisconsin-Madison and several other schools in the state system have scheduled the first day of fall classes for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of Monday, Sept. 6, and ends at sundown on Wednesday, Sept 8, which is the first day of class for Madison’s fall 2021 semester.
Hillel International estimates that 13% of undergraduates at Madison are Jewish, along with many faculty and graduate students. Judaism instructs that there is to be no work on what is one of the holiest days of the year.
Jewish groups have brought the issue to the attention of administrators, who have responded with a commitment to accommodate students.
“Classes will begin Sept. 8 as planned, but we will alert instructors who have classes on the first day of instruction of the difficulty the day may pose for some of their students,” said John Lucas, spokesman for University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We will ask faculty and instructors to make course materials available for that day in an online format or provide other material, ideally in advance, so that a student is not disadvantaged by missing class that day.”
In addition, the University’s Convocation, originally scheduled for Sept. 7, has been rescheduled to Sept. 3 to avoid conflict with the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Lucas said. Departmental welcome events have also been moved to avoid conflict with Rosh Hashanah.
Other campuses with a similar conflict for the first day of school are La Crosse, Oshkosh, Parkside, Stout and Superior, though none have large Jewish populations. University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee is the state school with the second-largest student Jewish population. It starts class on Sept. 2, so there’s no first day of school conflict, though like many other colleges, it does have class scheduled during Rosh Hashanah.
Jewish community lobbies
The Wisconsin Jewish Conference, Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Jewish Federation of Madison all asked for the university system to reconsider. “The fall start date in 2021 is particularly problematic from a welcoming and inclusion perspective and creates challenges for faculty, staff and students,” they wrote in a Feb. 22, 2021, letter to Board of Regents President Tommy G. Thompson.
“Starting school on one of the holiest of days in the Jewish year could have been and should have been avoided,” said Kai Gardner Mishlove, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “The calendar challenges point to a larger systemic concern around calendaring, inclusion and diversity.”
Greg Steinberger, president and CEO of Madison Hillel, has been advocating on behalf of faculty and students on the issue since he learned of it in December. Since then, he’s been emailing with school officials, meeting with Jewish faculty, learning who sets the calendar, understanding how this could happen, met repeatedly with a key university committee, met with the provost and spoken with the chancellor.
“Jewish members of the university community, just like other communities of faith, deserve the ability to celebrate our holidays without having to choose between the start of school and their identity,” Steinberger said. “The issues are amplified this year as we all focus on the failings of diversity and inclusion. This is an inclusion issue and not just a Jewish issue.”
Steinberger expressed frustration but did note that, “UW Madison has responded. They changed the convocation and accommodated. We are grateful for that.”
Michael Blumenfeld of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference said he believes the start date should be changed for all six affected UW campuses. The university system has so far not done so.
“We have been talking about this for several months and the request is to change the date,” he said. “It’s unclear what policies are going forward as well as how they’re actually going to manage the conflict.”
In the future, the university system needs a transparent policy for responding to religious holidays for all religions, Blumenfeld said.
Thompson, who leads the Board of Regents, responded to the Feb. 22 letter from Jewish community leaders in a letter dated March 23, 2021: “any changes at this late date would have cascading effects on myriad areas from financial aid awards to course schedule.”
“I do agree that this conflict should have easily been avoided had the universities been practicing more diligence in the development of their academic calendars,” the former Wisconsin governor added. “I believe the chancellors likewise regret the situation and have committed to working with their leadership teams to ensure proactive identification of these important dates to avoid future conflicts.”
Lucas, the UW-Madison spokesman, added: “Academic calendars are set a number of years in advance and provide the foundation for a number of key planning and administrative actions, including the development of the fall class schedule.”
“We have asked our registrar’s office to carefully review the academic calendar in all future years to identify potential religious conflicts well in advance so that we can make changes when appropriate,” Lucas added. “We regret the conflict our calendaring has created for our community.”
The Madison public school system changed its start date after being contacted by the Madison Jewish Federation and others in the Jewish community, Blumenfeld said. In the Milwaukee area, at least one Jewish-heavy high school is accommodating the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Nicolet High School gives Sept. 7 off and gives the reason on its calendar: “Rosh Hashanah.”
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation has made resources available for parents, faculty and staff related to the university system’s date conflict, at MilwaukeeJewish.org/UWStartDate.