Administration changes first day of school

By Matea Wasend

The administration is changing the first day of the 2010-11 school year to avoid a conflict with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year and one of the religion’s most important holidays. The change came after lobbying from the Macalester Jewish Organization, and the college’s Jewish Chaplain Barry Cytron.Though the tentative calendar listed the first day of school as Wednesday, Sept. 8, Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre announced last week that school will start a day earlier to accommodate students who celebrate Rosh Hashana.

The schedule change gives students the chance to attend the first day of all of their classes before Rosh Hashana begins at sunset on Wednesday, Sept. 8. The initial start date meant that many Jewish students would miss the first day of their Tuesday-Thursday classes, which leaders of MJO worried would be particularly harmful because many professors require first-day attendance.

When Cytron learned of the tentative start date, he immediately contacted the student leaders of MJO, Maggie Yates ’10, Maggie Jacoby ’11 and Joey Mayer ’11. Cytron and the MJO leaders then met with Hamre to discuss the schedule and possible solutions for the problems it posed.

MJO and Cytron also spoke to other religious leaders and organizations on campus, which Cytron said were “very supportive” of efforts to change the start date. Yates, Jacoby and Mayer also got in touch with student government members for ideas on how to appeal the schedule.

Before Hamre announced the administration’s decision, MJO expressed frustration with the way the issue was being handled.

“There was no acknowledgment that this was an error on the part of the administration,” Yates said. “There wasn’t really any room for dialoguing. It was a bit disempowering.”

MJO leaders said they were never told why the first day of classes was scheduled on Rosh Hashana in the first place.

“Rosh Hashana is the second most important holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Yates said. “It would be like scheduling the first day of school on Christmas or Easter.”

“Jewish holidays are on the academic calendars,” Mayer added. “They’re out there.”

Hamre said the schedule is drafted 18-24 months before it goes into effect, and the first day of school is almost always the Wednesday after Labor Day. The only other time the schedule has been changed in the past 25 years was last year, when the first day of school was shifted to August to accommodate the Republican National Convention.

Hamre took the concerns of Macalester Jewish Organization and Rabbi Cytron to the President’s senior staff, which makes the final approval of the calendar before it is distributed. After checking with outside sponsors and stakeholders who might be affected by the calendar-like the other ACTC schools, which share a similar schedule-the administration agreed to the change.

“By surfacing this issue you have reminded us of the importance of and consideration for the college’s commitment to diversity in every aspect of college life,” Hamre said in an e-mail to Cytron and the MJO leaders.

Although many students will still have to miss their Thursday classes, both Cytron and the MJO leaders applauded the decision.

“It doesn’t complicate things for the students or the faculty,” Cytron said. “It feels like a win-win.”

“We’re surprised and happy that the administration chose to stand behind the values of the college,” Mayer agreed. “We appreciate all of the hard work. We hope this sets a precedent for the college respecting the beliefs of its student body, especially when planning the academic calendar.”

Rosh Hashana’s date is determined by the Hebrew calendar, which adheres to lunar phases more strictly than the arithmetical Gregorian calendar. This means that on the Gregorian calendar the holiday can fall anywhere from Sept. 5 to Oct. 5 depending on the year. Because Rosh Hashana falls so early on the 2010 academic calendar, the MJO student leaders face the challenge of planning Rosh Hashanah services over the summer. The administration has offered them the option of returning to campus early to facilitate planning.

The early date also means that MJO cannot notify freshman about the Rosh Hashana services at the Org Fair, which does not take place until later in the month. The MJO leaders and Hamre discussed alternative options for getting in touch with incoming students, such as including an announcement that freshman would see when they registered for classes.

Hamre emphasized that the administration will take its own measures to minimize the negative effects of Rosh Hashana’s early date. She suggested that it might ask faculty members to extend their office hours and discourage on-campus employers from scheduling work or meetings during the holiday.

“We wouldn’t schedule an all-campus thing on any holidays,” Hamre said. “This really is about Macalester’s commitment to diversity.”

Cytron estimated that Jewish students make up around 8 percent of the student body. Though only 20-30 students attend MJO’s “Open Shabbat” services every other Friday night, about 80 students were present at this year’s Rosh Hashana services. Cytron said there are probably even more Jewish students at Macalester, some of whom might celebrate Rosh Hashana without attending services.

“At Macalester we take pride in respecting people’s privacy and not making them identify,” Cytron said. “[MJO] wants to recognize the diversity of the Jewish population.