Balancing Academic Pressure and Shabbat

At my high-achieving high school, Saturdays — or any days off, for that matter — were not days to rest, but opportunities to get ahead.

When I rewatch my childhood home videos, I often feel as though I am looking back into a different world — every aspect of my home, from the couches to the television set to the people who live in it, has drastically changed in the past 12 years. Yet when I happen to stumble upon a video filmed on a Friday evening, I am always surprised by the comforting consistency of our Shabbat table. Everything on the table appears identical to how we currently set it — we lay out the same spreads, use the same Kiddush cup and challah cover, and sit in the same unofficial seating arrangement.

But unlike the table’s consistencies, my own Shabbat routine has changed dramatically. As a young child, I saw Shabbat as a perfectly normal part of the week, and one I accepted without question. My family was never fully shomer Shabbat, but we always said the blessings at Friday night dinners and Saturday lunches, and we generally refrained from working or running errands, opting to visit relatives instead.

But now, as a high school senior, I find my life constantly bumping up against the limitations and expectations of the day. It’s a shifting relationship which began in middle school, as I grew increasingly aware that Shabbat was not the norm in most households. In those awkward stages of puberty, I craved normalcy in any way I could get it, and soon I began to gradually disconnect from Shabbat, too.

But my changing embrace of Shabbat was not just about fitting in.

Beyond the desire to be normal, my entrance into high school brought another, more intense desire: the desire to be better. As a student in what is considered an elite New York City high school, where my peers aspire to go to equally elite colleges, I found myself in an environment where Saturdays — or any days off, for that matter — were not considered days to rest. Instead, they became opportunities to get ahead: Start your next paper, your next college application, your next nonprofit organization, or whatever. But whatever you do, as per our implicit school motto, do not waste any free time you are granted. Shabbat became expendable, something that was not just different, but a liability. A waste of precious time.

For most of high school, I had bought into this moral narrative of maximum efficiency. I went to debate tournaments and other school competitions on Saturdays, many of which would consume my whole day. When I wasn’t away at Saturday competitions, I would skulk away to my room immediately after Shabbat lunch to complete my homework. If, one week, I decided to linger, all I’d feel was guilt. I would watch the clock tick at my relatives’ houses, telling myself that as soon as it struck a certain hour, I would get up and leave. While I passed the time, I’d discreetly pull out my phone under the table and send emails to teachers or text logistics to my classmates. Shabbat felt not just a waste, but a dangerous obstacle to the ever-important task of staying ahead.

But this year, as summer vacation has rolled in, I’ve found something new, something different. For whatever reason, I have had more free time this summer than in the previous few months combined, and than I’ve had other summers. For the first time in a very long time, I have time.

And with that time, I am gradually rediscovering the beauty of a simple and guilt-free Shabbat.

Instead of crawling into my room to study the second after lunch cleanup finishes (or hastily excusing myself from cleanup altogether), I actively volunteer my participation in all of the little things that make Shabbat come together, from clearing the table to visiting relatives to going on Shabbat walks. In place of the guilt, I feel the same contentment with my traditions that I did when I was younger.

So far, I have to admit, it’s been pretty nice. I like having the time to stroll aimlessly around my neighborhood, to catch up with my cousins without sneaking looks at the clock, the way my relationships with my parents and siblings have slowed and relaxed and meandered. I like having the gift of Shabbat back, as time not for the world but for my family and my own peace of mind.

But with the school year once again approaching, I don’t know if these new habits have a chance of sticking around. I know that I want Shabbat in my life, but do I want it more than that A+ or prestigious award?

Some might question whether these things are even mutually exclusive in the first place, and I wish I believed they weren’t. But I’ve yet to find a clear way through, a path which gives me both.

I wish that I could simply propose that public schools and academic organizations be more inclusive of Jewish students who observe Shabbat. It would be nice if no debate tournament or school competition met on Saturday. However, I realize that total inclusion is simply not practical, as there are other religious groups that worship on other days, and it would be impossible to account for all of them. While there are certainly steps that schools and organizations can take to increase equality of opportunity for observant Jews, for the most part, the burden of grappling with Shabbat is on us.

I also wish that I could simply reject the school culture that surrounds me and focus on fulfilling my own Shabbat values. But when work becomes all-consuming and the value of rest is continuously diminished all around me, it’s hard to go at it alone. Until elite schools embrace rest as a universal value — one that everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, could benefit from — the burden of grappling with Shabbat will remain entirely on us. For now, I am still searching for where my true desires lie, and trying to find the right balance. I am not expecting to find that balance in the immediate future.

But hopefully, some part of this summer will stick with me. I still want to be better, but maybe “better” can mean more than academic success — maybe it can also mean finding a certain mental peace. And just maybe, Shabbat can help enable it, serving as my blissful escape as academic stress continues to build. With luck, I might even soon be able to rewatch my home videos and find that I share the same enduring connection to Shabbat as the 5-year-old looking back at me on the screen.

Rachel Pakan

Rachel Pakan (she/her) is an undergraduate student on the pre-medical track, with additional interests in English literature and journalism. She seeks to integrate these interests as she progresses in her education and career, all while continuing to explore Jewish culture and history.

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