To avoid being offensive, be mindful of non-Christian religious customs

November 25, 2019 — by Lihi Shoshani

“I can’t go to school on Wednesday, it’s Yom Kippur.”

“Lucky! But what is that?”

I get questions like these all the time. 

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement for Jewish people: We fast for 24 hours, spend the day in prayer and don’t bathe or use technology as a way to make amends for our sins and ask for forgiveness.

Although Yom Kippur is a serious and holy day for Jewish people, many students and faculty don’t seem to understand it at all. I’ve been greeted with a response like, “Enjoy!” from my teachers when I tell them I’m observing Yom Kippur. Many who don’t know about the holiday immediately assume it’s a festive one.

My parents, who immigrated to this country from Israel 15 years ago, were shocked to find out that people didn’t know much about religions besides Christianity when they arrived. Telling my parents these stories only made them more curious as to why others aren’t taught to branch out and learn about other traditions.

To be sure, there is a big cultural emphasis on Christianity in school; we focus on Christian themes in our history and English classes. We even have an AP European History class, which focuses on Christian rulers and empires, but there’s little education on non-Christian religions. Christianity has a big impact on students’ education in the U.S., and off-school days sometimes revolve around Christian holidays.

Regardless of your own religion, it’s important to try to be mindful and courteous of other religions and customs. Thoughtless comments and questions can be exasperating and offensive to those who observe non-Christian holidays. 

Once I return to class after Yom Kippur, I’m bombarded with questions asking how the holiday was and if it was “fun” to be out of school for a full day, making it hard to think of an appropriate response. Did I have fun spending the day in boredom while fasting, not using my phone, not leaving my house and not talking to anyone other than my family? There really isn’t a right answer.

I’ve even had people argue with me over why I missed school, thinking it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that is celebrated a week before Yom Kippur. Having to defend your religion, especially after a day of atonement, is very disheartening.

These stories are interesting to recall and can make me laugh now, but during the moment, these moments made me want to pull my hair out.

Ignorance about religion is, of course, widespread. Many are unaware of Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist customs. There are many holidays, which not only include Yom Kippur, but also Ramadan and Lent, which some on campus do observe, yet others are still unaware of them. 

It’s not only students’ fault if they don’t know about other religions, as they should be taught about them at school and at home to become more culturally aware. There should be a change of religious focus in schools to expand everyone’s understanding of other customs and beliefs.

People should be more mindful about religious holidays and customs. It can be exasperating to keep answering the same questions with awkward remarks to people ignorant about other religions. Learning about non-Christian religions and understanding other students’ beliefs and perspectives can help make everyone feel included and recognized by their peers.

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