Just as with a rearview mirror, Purim and Passover this year are closer than they appear. And if you are a student who has class on these days – either on Wednesday evening or Thursday during the day, for example – then it isn’t too late to get an accommodation and connect with the festivities at either Chabad on campus or Hillel Ottawa. This is doubly true if it is your first time. It is never too late to do “Jewish,” and there is no better time to start than now. Let me count the ways.
First, know that it is your right, especially on campus. At the bottom of most syllabi, in almost every publicly-funded university in Canada and the United States, there is a blurb that enshrines religious freedom. Sometimes it is stated vigorously, other times it is barely a sentence, and it is jammed between the far larger sections on plagiarism and the writing services centre. But, most of the time, it still sings the same tune: that the university believes in cultural or religious diversity, and within the first two, three, four weeks, or as soon as possible, the student ought to communicate with the professor in case accommodation for religious observances is needed.
Second, you probably know already what it means: an email to your professors letting them know there is a tension between your responsibility as a student and your obligation with your faith community. In other words, the point of this legalistic blurb is a compromise between the two poles that everyone with faith is torn between – what Leo Strauss would call the world of the philosopher and the world of the theologian, and what Spinoza derisively described as the theological-political tension. Faith itself demands to be taken seriously; the concept of a divine ruler is not a trifling subject. But that is a discussion for another day, because this email still needs to be written.
Third, emails are designed to be terrible. It is normal, even human, to hate writing emails almost as much as reading them. There is never the right word, or the right moment – emails stack up, they clog your inbox, and there is almost never a reason to write them. Want to talk to someone? Call them. Miss them? Text. Send a photo? Snapshot. Until proven otherwise, emails have no natural home, because no one – really – wants to write them.
You need to overcome this. Until emails disappear the way that the Romans and the Trojans did, there is nothing stopping their dominance over modern society. The subject line should say your class, and the introduction should say the professor’s name. Be succinct. There is no need to justify yourself; simply stating that you are Jewish is enough. If this process takes a while, there is nothing strange about it – the first time I wrote a similar email, it took me far more time than I would care to admit. The second time, though, was a far speedier process. By the third, I was a self-described master.
Fourth, remember that professors – in fact, most people – respect people that respect themselves. If you are Jewish, and you want to do Jewish, then do it. The point of religious accommodation is not to disadvantage you for the accident that Canada was colonized by two European powers that happened to be Christian, and decided that holidays ought to follow the Christian tradition. The miracle of Canada is that despite its founding, the right for religious tolerance is a higher ideal. Rights remain rights only insofar that they are used. Religious liberty is your secular – and divinely sanctified – right.
Fifth, know that any celebration of Purim and Passover needs you. The word for return in Hebrew is teshuva – a return to the path that our mothers and fathers walked on from Egypt to Israel. In the words of the Sages, the Talmud teaches that before the genesis of the physical world, repentance was created. This was not an oversight. No one is perfect. Even Moses, which Ahad Ha’am, one of the early Zionists, cites as the emblem of the highest aspirations of the Jewish people, was not infrequently chastised by God for failing to heed direct commands.
It is never too late to join the fun. The easiest email you can write is the email that you already sent.