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St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Concerns rise as WashU schedules events, classes on Jewish High Holidays

Jordan Palmer

Two recent decisions to schedule events and classes at Washington University during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays have many in the local Jewish community concerned and asking why. The decisions came from Washington University’s William Greenleaf Eliot Society and its Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

The Eliot Society, a group of supporters affiliated with WashU who contribute $1,000 or more annually to the university, scheduled its Family Day on Saturday, Sept. 16, which is the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Members are invited to enjoy “spectacular views of Great Forest Park Balloon Race.”

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute released its fall class schedule, with classes beginning on Monday, Sept. 25, which is Yom Kippur.

Community reaction

Some members of the local Jewish community were upset when they learned of the scheduling of an event and classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Gary Feder, a retired attorney and a current alderman in the city of Clayton, received an email from the Eliot Society reminding him to RSVP for the upcoming Family Day and immediately recognized Sept. 16 as Rosh Hashanah.

“I was upset by this, because why would they schedule this when they did, and because the follow-up language was not apologetic, and also gratuitous and pretty insulting and obnoxious,” said Feder.

Feder, a 30-year member and supporter of the Eliot Society is referring to this statement in the email.

“We recognize that Eliot Society members who are observing the Jewish holiday may not be able to attend the event due to Rosh Hashanah. We will miss you, offer our sincerest wishes for a happy and healthy new year, and hope to see you in future years. If you are able to join us, we plan to celebrate the holiday with a special treat. L’shana tova!”

— The Eliot Society

Feder says he reached out to contacts within the university’s leadership and was told that he was not the first alumni to speak out regarding the Eliot Society’s event scheduling. Meanwhile, several other concerned members of the St. Louis Jewish community contacted the Jewish Light.

Randee Jacobs, a Clayton interior designer and longtime student of past OLLI classes, went online to check out the latest classes being offered this fall. She says she was shocked to see that classes were scheduled to begin on Sept. 25, the day of Yom Kippur.

“It struck me as a divisive, degrading, misguided way to begin a new year,” said Jacobs, who complained to the OLLI office via email and in person. “I was told to ‘take it up with the dean.’ Wow, how does one do that? Their motto is inclusiveness, but this feels the exact opposite.”

Jacobs also reached out to former OLLI instructors who were Jewish as well as leaders in the Jewish community, many of whom were equally surprised at the decision to begin classes on Yom Kippur.

WashU Hillel

WashU Hillel, an independent non-profit serving undergraduate Jewish students at WashU, says it was not consulted in the scheduling of the event.

WashU Hillel estimates that about 24 percent of Washington University’s undergraduates are Jewish (around 1,700 out of the university’s 6,400 undergraduates).

“In terms of the Eliot Society event, the University reached out after receiving pushback from some community members,” said Jacqueline Ulin Levey, CEO of WashU Hillel. “Eliot Society leadership indicated they would not be postponing or rescheduling due to the date of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, but asked how they could acknowledge and honor Rosh Hashanah in a respectful manner while expressing regret that more traditional Jewish members of the Eliot Society would not be able to attend.”

Levey and WashU Hillel Silk Foundation Campus Rabbi Jordan Gerson said that in addition to the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Rosh Hashanah services they are hosting, along with holiday meals and other programs, they plan to treat this as educational opportunity, much like the pop-ups Hillel hosts regularly throughout campus around various holidays.

“WashU Hillel will be setting up an information table at the Eliot Society event in partnership with University Advancement, explaining the meaning and customs of Rosh Hashanah and providing a sweet holiday treat to those in attendance,” said Rabbi Gerson.

WashU Response

The Jewish Light reached out to the university and on Wednesday, Sept. 13, received the following response from Julie Hail Flory, the Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications.

“We always try to avoid conflicts with religious observances and holidays when scheduling university events. Unfortunately, sometimes we make a mistake. This is never intentional, and we regret any inconvenience or stress this may cause members of our community. We’re grateful for our long history of strong connections with Jewish students, alumni, faculty and staff, and also appreciate our close partnerships with community organizations. We will continue to work together with all of our partners to ensure that we are supporting the needs of our community.”

— Julie Hail Flory

| RELATED: How Washington University’s Hillel House became a reality

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About the Contributor
Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer
Jordan worked at KSDK from 1995 to 2020. Jordan is a three-time Emmy award winner who produced every kind of show from news to specials during his tenure, creating Show Me St. Louis, The Cardinal Nation Show. He started ksdk.com in 2001 and won three Edward R. Murrow Awards for journalistic and website excellence in 2010, 2014 and 2020. Jordan has been married for 25 years and is the father of two college students. He is an avid biker, snowboarder, and beer lover. He created the blog drink314.com, focusing on the St. Louis beer community in 2015. Jordan has an incredible and vast knowledge of useless information and is the grandson of a Cleveland bootlegger.