Yes, Secular Jews Can Take Time Off for the High Holidays

If we truly have freedom of religion, then we also have the right to secular Jewish observances.

My High Holiday observance has waxed and waned in the last decade. Some years, I spent most of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in synagogue; at home, my phone was off and stashed away in a drawer while I avoided showering, turning on lights or even tearing toilet paper in accordance with traditional Jewish law. Other years, I spent Rosh Hashanah in bed and went straight to Taco Bell after Kol Nidre services.

In my less observant years, I still always chose to be absent from class or work, even if I knew I wouldn’t be doing anything holiday-related during those days.

In undergrad, I had Jewish friends who were similarly not observant, but they never missed class. Our university didn’t have any rules or regulations in place to protect students and professors who wanted to observe non-Christian religious holidays. Some of my peers feared falling behind or receiving pushback from unaccommodating professors; others would say something along the lines of, “Well, if I’m not going to services, I might as well go to class. I’m not religious anyway.”

I imagine there are Jews of all ages who feel similarly to my classmates as we approach the High Holidays. Taking a day off only to spend it knowing that make-up work awaits you doesn’t exactly encourage a relaxed mindset. For me, refusing to study or work on Jewish holidays is never about getting some extra vacation.

It’s about resisting Christian hegemony.

Even in a country like the United States that isn’t explicitly led by a church or religious leader, the widespread normalization of Christian values and holidays is still deeply entrenched in American society. In the U.S. — and in many other parts of the world — it’s unimaginable that any institution would be open on Christmas or Easter. It’s similarly unthinkable for a professor or supervisor to probe a Christian student to ensure that a time off request for religious reasons is genuine, or that they will be attending church on Christmas Day. These are both manifestations of Christian hegemony.

Jewish holidays, whether we personally choose to observe them or not, are no less deserving of recognition than the national Christian holidays Americans can spend as they choose. Praying or strictly observing a holiday isn’t what makes these days ours to take off. If we truly have freedom of religion, then as Jews, we also have the right to secular Jewish observances.

This isn’t a right that is universally recognized. In the U.S., employers aren’t legally required to grant paid time off for religious holidays. Ultimately, Jews and other non-Christians are forced to use precious vacation days or risk losing a shift or two of payment. Antisemitic microaggressions from supervisors or coworkers can also result from time off requests.

If you plan to use vacation days during the High Holidays — or any time, really — you aren’t obligated to explain what you’ll be doing during your vacation. The simplest way to avoid facing any kind of pushback or never-ending questioning about your level of religiosity is to avoid going into detail altogether. If asked about a time off request, “I have some personal time off to use up by the end of the year” is a reasonable answer — at any time of the year, and especially if you don’t want to explain that you’ll be absent for a Jewish holiday.

If you’re comfortable explaining that you’re taking the time off in honor of Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur, you should certainly do so. By asserting your right to non-Christian secularity, you can even help your peers understand that there are many, many ways to be Jewish.

What do you do with an entire obligation-free day if you aren’t a synagogue-goer? Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, and its autumn timing makes it a fitting occasion to reassess any goals set on January 1. Other High Holiday themes that are universally resonant include making amends, asking for forgiveness, bettering ourselves and starting anew. Take that to mean you should start a new Netflix series, if you want — it’s your day off.

If you’re in a position to stay home from school or work on the High Holidays, do it. It doesn’t matter if you spend the holidays in a synagogue or under the covers. What’s important is recognizing that it’s bonkers for supposedly secular institutions to operate on a Christian schedule, and that no one earns the right to take off a Jewish holiday by being religious on other days of the year. Being Jewish is the only reason you need to miss class or work on a Jewish holiday.

Read More