University of California calendar shifts to avoid religious conflict

A University of California policy intended to avoid religious conflicts with move-in days has shifted the academic calendars of UC Davis and the six other UC campuses on the quarterly system, a change that next year will result in later start dates and shorter winter breaks for thousands of students.

The policy was issued in June 2007 after members of the Jewish community complained that move-in days in 2006 conflicted with the Jewish High Holy Days. During the 10 days between the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, observant Jews are forbidden from doing “work,” including writing or carrying items.

Jewish High Holy Days move depending on the lunar-based Jewish calendar. Next year, these holidays fall at the end of September, delaying the start of the academic year until Oct. 2.

“Some years when the calendar shifts a few days, this can happen,” said Keith Sterling, UC Davis spokesman. “It wasn’t a change in policy. It probably will happen again in the next six or seven years.”

This year the fall quarter began on Sept. 23 and ended on Dec. 13, giving students a full three weeks of winter break. Next year, the quarter will begin on Oct. 2 and end on Dec. 19, giving students only two weeks of break before winter classes begin on Jan. 5.

Christine Mateo, a UC Davis senior from Roseville, said winter break is a crucial time for seeing family and recuperating from what she describes as “a really intense quarter.”

“Break was already really short and it was three weeks,” she said. “I like that we do have a policy to accommodate for other religions; it shouldn’t just be for Christmas and more known holidays. But I do not like the fact that break will be shorter.”

About 3 percent of UC students systemwide identify themselves as Jewish, though not all of them are observant, according to the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey from 2010. The University of California at Santa Barbara, UCLA and University of California at Santa Cruz have the largest populations of Jewish students, ranking 32nd, 33rd and 34th respectively on the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life’s top 60 colleges by population.

Jim Atkins, executive director of Hillel at UC Santa Cruz, said the change will make a big difference to Jewish students. “It’s really important to the Jewish faith; it’s like Christmas,” he said of the High Holy Days. “It’s not like students expect to have every Jewish holiday off. But it’s this awful conflict. If it’s the beginning of the year and you don’t show up, sometimes you get kicked out of the class.”

David Eden, chief administrative officer at Hillel International, a global Jewish education network, said he has not heard of other institutions adopting policies to avoid conflicting with High Holy Days, but hopes the educational system will continue embracing students of all faiths.

“It’s wonderful and extraordinary that UC Davis and the California system are so accommodating to the Jewish people, and we hope they would do the same for other religions with similar conflicts,” said Eden. “It’s the right gesture and the right thing to do.”

The policy covers all major religious holidays and last came into play in 2009, when the late August move-in days for the UC semester schools at Berkeley and Merced conflicted with the Muslim holiday Ramadan. In a June 2007 letter, then-UC president Robert C. Dynes explained the reasoning behind the decision, which was made in conjunction with the university registrars and the Academic Senate.

“Representatives of the Jewish community and members of the California Legislature have expressed a desire for the University to avoid the conflicts that have arisen between fall residence hall move-in days and the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” the letter reads. “Concerns over previous conflicts led to the development of this policy in consultation with members of the Jewish community and the Legislature.”

Allyson Werner, a Jewish senior from San Diego studying at UC Santa Barbara, said Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are significant to the Jewish faith, and if school were in session many Jewish students would stay home.

“It affects a really tiny group of people, so I’m not sure the benefit outweighs the negatives for the rest of the student body,” she said. “But overall it’s a good change, because those holidays are the most important days in Judaism.”

Erik Aasen, a UC Davis sophomore from Sacramento, said he understands the accommodation, but would rather the university find a solution that does not involve cutting winter break.

“Winter break is shorter, and that sucks,” he said. “It would be better if there was a less dramatic summer and more breaks between quarters.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee