Most Jewish holidays start at sundown, a safe time to leave the office. However, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all-day affairs, and this year Rosh Hashannah starts tonight — right in the middle of the week. Rabbi David Lerner, says the first time you decide whether or not you are going to work is “a big decision.”
”I can’t think of another event like this in Jewish life,” he says.
Sarah Maltzman is typical of those twentysomethings deciding how to prioritize work and religion. She does not go to synagogue regularly but grew up in a family where people skipped work on the high holy days. Now, as a teacher, she, too, will take time off. But she will work one of the two days of Rosh Hashana, because she says she doesn’t want her students to have too many days in a row with substitute teachers. ”If I were in a 9-to-5 job I would feel more comfortable taking time off,” she says.
There is no law granting the right to take off work for religious holidays, but according to Linda Saiger, executive director of Chicago’s Council on Jewish Workplace Issues, most people are able to get the days off if they want them.
The question is: What do people want?
There is a lot of peer pressure to stay home and observe the holidays. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of the families affiliated with a synagogue show up on Yom Kippur for a day of fasting and self-reflection. In fact, such a large percentage of the Jewish population stays home, that some schools close, some stores close, and towns with large Jewish populations seem to completely shut down.
However, there is also a lot of pressure to go to work. In some industries, like investment banking, people rarely take time off for anything, doing what it takes to get the job done and make a good impression.
Jessie Bodzin is managing editor of Heeb, a magazine for hipster Jews. She says that one of her friends had a new job with a heavy workload, so she went to work and fasted to allay some of her guilt. But Bodzin doesn’t recommend this tactic.
”This is the worst of both worlds, because she got a headache from fasting without the benefit of self-reflection,” Bodzin said. Another friend of Bodzin’s went to synagogue in the morning, then to work, then back to synagogue. For him, maybe the guilt of going to work was abated because Bodzin said he ended up spending more time in synagogue than he would have had he not gone to work.
Some of the most complicated decisions arise when a twentysomething relocates for work far away from family. Many feel compelled to take the day off, but have nowhere to go.
Leah Furman, author of Single Jewish Female: A Modern Guide to Sex and Dating, says that some people don’t go into work because that would be breaking tradition, but they don’t necessarily go to synagogue all day.
”For some people, it’s a time to get together with Jewish friends,” she says. ”Maybe they go to synagogue for a little while and then they go with friends out to lunch.”
For those on looking for meaning, Lerner reminds them that the core issue is not about missed deadlines at work or used up vacation days: ”There is a lot that people can do to have impact on a broken world,” he says, ”and the high holy days call to us, motivate us to do this.”
For those who forgo the pursuit of synagogue tickets, Esther Kustanowitz, author of My Urban Kvetch, points out an enticing alternative: That’s two full days out of the work week for Rosh Hashana, and if you take three more vacation days you can go away on a trip for nine days.