A conference on Christmas? Never! On Passover? Sure, why not?

By | March 19, 2006

Why, in this age of tolerance and religious non-discrimination, can’t people figure out how to avoid scheduling conferences on Jewish holidays?

No corporation or organization would consider scheduling a meeting or conference on Christmas, or even on July 4. And yet, I’ve missed meetings and conferences which were thoughtlessly scheduled on Jewish holidays more times than I could count.

I recognize the reality that there are just so many Jewish holidays that it’s difficult for event organizers to avoid all of them. However, that explanation begins to look suspicious when, in a year like 2006, when only six of the critical can’t-possibly-work-on-them Jewish holy days fall on week days, I’ve already been forced to miss two conferences my employer wanted me to attend, one of which was scheduled on Passover and the other on Shavuot.

A more likely explanation is simple ignorance. There is a great deal of complexity in the Jewish holidays: they fall on different days every year; they have different lengths, both between holidays and between Jewish denominations; they have different observances and restrictions; the whole concept of those “restrictions” is foreign to most non-Jews; and most secular calendars don’t accurately include all of them.

A year or so ago, when I ran into the problem of my own employer scheduling important all-company meetings on holidays, I set out to find a site on the Web to which I could refer my employer as a reference for determining which days to avoid in the future. I could not find a single suitable site. I found a few which looked like they were intended for this purpose, but all of them had errors — they over-stress the importance of some Jewish holidays, omit others, or both. I gave up and just offered to provide to my employer at the beginning of each year a list of the days that I couldn’t possibly work because of holidays.

After the two missed conferences (so far) this year, I decided that just wasn’t good enough anymore, so I decided to so something about it. The result is my Jewish Holidays and Event Scheduling page. You enter the year, and it tells you all the holidays you need to avoid when scheduling events. While it encourages you to avoid all the holidays, it concedes that this isn’t possible, so it breaks down the holidays by relative importance to give you some idea of how bad it would be to conflict with each one.

Please take a look and let me know what you think. Also, please feel free to forward the link to anyone whom you think might find it useful.

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15 thoughts on “A conference on Christmas? Never! On Passover? Sure, why not?

  1. Joe Morris

    Very interesting and informative.

    (1) UX suggestion: write “Passover” rather than “Pesach”. This is a page for goyim, might as well use the terms we’re familiar with. If you want to be educational, perhaps “Pesach (Passover)”.

    (2) You have “When Jewish holidays start” but no “When Jewish holidays stop”. It would be helpful to know if you can reasonably invite Jews to after-sunset events on a holiday date. It sounds like probably yes (for Passover anyway) based on your answer above to maxdaddy, but if there is a definitive-ish answer might as well put it on the main page.

    Reply
  2. AZ

    good list of holidays… but I think you have too many! the only ones that really matter in my mind is Passover and Yom Kippur for organizations to avoid when scheduling events. You cant expect them to keep 10 days in mind during the year. If we just emphasized the 2 key events we would have a better chance of avoiding event conflicts.

    Reply
    1. jik Post author

      You’re really missing the point.

      The purpose of the page is to give event organizers the information they need to know when they might be scheduling an event in a way that conflicts with some Jews’ observance of Jewish holidays.

      Not listing all the holidays won’t make them go away. Not listing all the holidays won’t change the fact that some Jews observe them.

      You are not the only Jew in the world. Your personal level of observance of Jewish holidays does not trump the rights of Jews who observe more of the holidays than you do.

      Listing only Passover and Yom Kippur and telling event organizers that those are the only holidays they need to worry about would be lying to them, and it would be worse than not having the scheduling page available at all.

      Reply
  3. maxdaddy

    [Sorry, I’m not sure I already sent this, so I am sending it again–or, better, a reconstruction, since I do not have an exact copy of what went off to you previously, if anything.]

    First, this is a great site for anyone trying to be sensitive about scheduling events.

    My organization, a community not-for-profit in Boston, wants to have a fundraiser on the evening of April 20. I understand that Passover starts before sunset on April 18 and that American Jews typically celebrate Seders for two nights, thus presumably the nights of April 18 and April 19.

    There seem to be two questions to be aware of. First, is April 20 in the evening objectionable for scheduling an event? I see extended discussion in this blog about Jewish holidays starting around sunset of the previous night. Does this mean that each day of the holiday, if there is more than one day, starts the previous evening around sunset and ends the next evening around sunset? And does this mean, in turn, that an event where the meal portion starts after sunset on April 20 (7:31 PM on that day) would not offend Jews observing the two-day Passover tradition? (The event would start at the Museum of Fine Arts late in the afternoon.)

    Second, if April 20 after sunset is all right, what, if any, restrictions should the meal try to observe? The no-chametz restrictions only? Is a buffet all right, from which each guest can choose what he or she wants? Or might this be a problem? Should our organization try to comply with restrictions on meal-preparation equipment? The meal portion of the event will be held in a private residence; the hosts are not Jews. Almost certainly, it will be done by a caterer.

    Please let me know if my questions are on target, and if I am missing anything, too.

    Plainly, one easy way of addressing this would be having the event on April 13!

    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. jik Post author

      [You did post it twice, so I deleted the first one since it was redundant.]

      These are all good questions! Thanks for asking and for trying to accommodate your Jewish supporters.

      For Jewish who observe both of the first two days of Passover, they are a single, uninterrupted holiday, so it’s sort of irrelevant when the second day “starts” per se. The second day ends 42, 50 or 72 minutes (depending on each location and individual and community traditions) after sundown on April 20, which in Boston means 8:12, 8:20 or 8:42. There probably aren’t many Jews in Boston who observe the latest time.

      For people who strictly observe the dietary restrictions of Passover, nothing at your buffet will be edible, and complying with the restrictions on equipment, dishes, etc. will be impossible for practical and cost reasons, so don’t bother trying. Your best bet is to contact one of the local Kosher caterers (Catering by Andrew is probably your best bet) and ask them if they can prepare Kosher for Passover boxed meals for your guests who need them.

      However, given how late the holiday ends that night, it seems unlikely that any Jews who observe both days of the holiday will be able to attend the fundraiser, so having it on another night may be preferable.

      Reply
  4. justme

    Wow! I started off finding your site because I had an issue with Dell. Now I see we have even more in common. I’m an Orthodox Jew, and for years I’ve had exactly this same sentiment. I remember getting on some mailing list for some motivational-seminar thing, and they had a seminar scheduled for Rosh Hashanah. Well, I got on the phone and tried to explain just the way you put it – that they would never have a seminar on Christmas, so why on a (very holy) Jewish holiday? People are so clueless. By the way, several of my kids (they’re all Orthodox also) live in Israel, and even with the situation there, I am so glad they do, because they don’t have stuff like this to contend with. Over there, Shabbat is Shabbat, even to the non-observant Israelis. Anyway, Yasher Koach, Kol HaKavod, good for you, keep it up!

    Reply
  5. jik Post author

    A response to some comments I received today via email…

    I didn’t want to register with your blog so I thought I’d leave comments here.

    FYI, the only reason I require registration on my blog is to reduce the amount of “blog spam” I get. I don’t use the registration information for anything. Really.

    I’m a non-Orthodox Jew. I affiliate with the Reform movement (mostly because I don’t enjoy Conservative shabbat services), though I regularly attend services and I keep kosher (style). I wanted to offer my perspective on your holiday listing, as I have spent a huge part of my life in academia as, ironically, the only Jew on the block.

    Thank you very much for your feedback! As you will see from my responses below, I’ve made some significant changes to my holiday page based on it.

    The “erev” issue: In the cases of Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Kol Nidre I think it is worth the potential for extra confusion to make absolutely clear that these evenings are not free and that 90% of Jews (from any “stream”) will probably need to leave school or work early for their observance. This year’s example: a required seminar in my department runs until 5-5:30 every Wednesday. I live in LA, where driving anywhere requires at least an hour. I was permitted to skip it for the first seder, but it was counted as if I had just decided to take a day off, rather than as a conflict with which I should never have been faced. Of course a personal conversation is essential to arranging such things with bosses or professors, but we as a community should seek to heighten sensitivity to the particular issue of Jews needing to leave early on such evenings (or afternoons, as the case may be).

    I’ve added an entire section about when Jewish holidays actually start, and I’ve added links to this section from the actual holiday lists.

    As a “less observant” Jew, I often don’t observe the following, despite knowing better: Purim (though I don’t feel guilty about this one), Shavuot, Tish’a B’Av, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret (though I generally go to synagogue for Simchat Torah, which may be celebrated jointly with Shmini Atzeret). However, I observe Tish’a B’Av as often as any in that list (I suspect because I usually went to or worked at Jewish summer camps). As other readers have commented, the restrictions on Tish’a B’Av and the significance of the holiday warrant at least a “yellow” rating. Maybe it’s psychological, but in my mind “green means go” — not okay for a communal day of mouring!

    I’ve already addressed this in previous comments, and I’m going to stick with what I said before.

    I think that the main list would benefit from the use of an asterisk to denote the presence of a dietary restriction for relevant dates. The bottom of the page could explain fast days, Pesach, etc so that the interested boss or organizer could be sensitive to those needs if they so desired. I’m not advocating including all fast days of course, but many in the non-Jewish world don’t understand that I can’t eat bread and the like during Pesach, while I am fully aware that my Catholic peers can’t eat meat.

    I’ve added sections about food on Pesach and about fast days and made links to those sections from the lists of holidays. I’ve also added a link you can click on in the section about fast days to add the minor fast days to the holiday lists.

    I’m sorry for going on so long, but I thought you might appreciate my point of view on this matter. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading!

    Your feedback is very much appreciated, and I hope that the changes I’ve made help to address some of your concerns!

    Reply
  6. jik Post author

    Someone else made a similar suggestion. I put Tisha B’Av in the weakest category for three reasons:

    One point on this that I don’t think I mentioned privately to you: TbA, as a midsummer event, will not tend to collide with conference scheduling (who schedules conferences in July or August? Or maybe I’m just thinking too academically), so in that sense, its listing is not very relevant.

    It would be nice, though, to bump it up a category so that those whose supervisors use this tool as a “why should you be absent that day, when JIK says it’s a minor thing” are given a little assistance. Supervisors may be more amenable to permitting a Sunday-TbA trade if they’re not being directly told by something “official” that it’s minor.

    None of the holidays listed on my holidays page are “minor.” As the page itself notes, “Note that even the biggest list doesn’t contain all the Jewish holidays. Trust me, you don’t want to see that list.” It further states at the beginning of the biggest list of holidays, “If you schedule something on any of these dates, you will prevent some Jews from being able to attend your event. It may be hard to avoid them all, but please try!”

    A supervisor who isn’t able to understand this after looking at my page and having it further explained by his/her employee is beyond help. 🙂

    Reply
  7. jik Post author

    It’s too wordy. Instead of dividing it into all those sections, I would just show the first table (perhaps compressing it a bit and putting in table boundaries), and then have a brief note underneath to explain what the color codes mean.

    I don’t want to get into a drawn-out discussion of user interface design, so I’m just going to say that I think the current UI is more appropriate for the target audience than your suggested UI.

    I may certainly be wrong, but it does not seem likely that I will be able to conduct the usability study that would be necessary to figure out whether that’s the case. Absent such a study, someone’s got to decide what the UI should be, and since I wrote it, I get to be the someone. 🙂

    I’m not sure I understand why the first night of Hanukah is any more important than the other nights.

    In my experience, for families with children, missing the first night of Hanukah is a Big Deal. Missing the other nights isn’t so great either, but I think missing the first night is worse. This is a social / cultural consideration rather than a Halachic one; I did take such considerations into account when categorizing the holidays.

    Also, are there really any Jews who would not attend a conference on Shmini Atzeret, but would attend one on the second day of Rosh Hashana? Most Jews I know who don’t observe Rosh Hashana II haven’t even heard of Shmini Atzeret.

    I am under the impression that Reform Jews observe Simchat Torah on the day that Conservative and Orthodox Jews observe as Shmini Atzeret. If I am wrong about that, then I need to swap Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. At http://urj.org/holidays/jcal/, the Union for Reform Judaism lists “Atzeret / Simchat Torah” for 5767 on “Sat OCT 14”.

    I would bump 9 Av up to yellow (because of all the various prohibitions, rituals, etc. and IIRC many people avoid work until mid-day),

    Someone else made a similar suggestion. I put Tisha B’Av in the weakest category for three reasons:

    1. I am trying to make this tool applicable to all Jewish denominations, and it is my impression that Tisha B’Av is not an important holiday to most non-Orthodox Jews.

    2. I want to make avoiding the holidays easy enough to do that people will actually be willing to do it, which means that I lean toward categorizing holidays more weakly when there is justification for doing so.

    3. I believe that it is permissible for even Orthodox Jews to work on Tisha B’Av if refraining from doing so would harm their parnassa. I am open to correction on this matter, but even if I’m wrong, I’m not sure it would outweigh the other two reasons.

    and add the minor fasts in green (making sure to call them “Fast of…” so that it’s clear what’s going on).

    The list of holidays is already way too daunting for a non-Jew trying to schedule an event. Most non-Orthodox Jews don’t observe any of the minor fasts, and there’s no reason why an Orthodox Jew can’t work on a minor fast day. I therefore believe the minor fasts do not rise to the level of even the “green” holidays on my list.

    Even with your note about holidays starting the night before, it might make sense to add Erev Pesach in green or yellow, because of all the extra preparation involved.

    A religious Jew who knows in advance that he will have to attend an event on Erev Pesach can work around it and manage to do it. The purpose of this page is not to make it convenient for Jews to attend secular events; it’s to make it possible for them to do so.

    On the flip side, you’re not the first person to suggest this, so I confess that I’m still considering it.

    Reply
  8. jik Post author

    I really think this is a fantastic service. People are always screwing up with this and this is a nice way to raise consciousness as well as make it easy for them to get the information. My only criticism is that even though you said it at least 10 times in all the paragraphs, the fact that the evening before is also the holiday will be missed repeatedly by some persistent block heads. Most of the problems I encounter are evening meetings and if the bloat wouldn’t too bad I’d suggest putting in the evenings separately. (First Seder, First night of Chanukah, Kol Nidre, Beginning of Succoth, etc.)

    Others have raised the question of how to make it more obvious that holidays start the previous night. An earlier version of the page was less assertive about it, and I beefed it up in response to feedback. I am still debating with myself whether more needs to be done, and if so what the right way to do it would be.

    Listing the nights separately as you suggested would introduce a different ambiguity — would such a listing block off the whole day, or just the evening? Sure, you could say that the names on the listings would make it obvious, but if we could rely on “obvious” things, then we wouldn’t need to list the evenings at all, since the fact that we’ve bashed the user over the head about when holidays start should also be “obvious”.

    I’ve toyed with adding an additional column with the previous date in it, i.e., instead of just a “Date” column, there would be “Starts 0:18 before sunset” and “Ends 0:42 after sunset” columns with two consecutive dates in them. However, once I do that, I open up other cans of worms. What about people who observe 72 minutes instead of 42 minutes? What about holidays on consecutive days? Etc.

    In short, I’m still thinking about it, but right now, it seems to me that any additional changes to display when the holidays start would hurt information transmission more than help it.

    Reply
  9. jik Post author

    As a supplement, Outlook 2003 has the Jewish Religious calendar as an alternate calendar. While it doesn’t go into the detail necessary for decision-making, it can serve as a reminder to “check it out” on your webpage.

    I’m reluctant to mention this on the holidays page page. As you point out, the information that Outlook provides isn’t good enough. If I thought “not good enough” was good enough, I wouldn’t have bothered to write my application. I think telling people to put the Outlook data onto their calendars will give them enough of a feeling of “security” about the Jewish holidays that they won’t bother to consult my list, thus defeating its purpose.

    Reply
  10. jik Post author

    Considering that less than 2% of Americans are Jews and only 22% of them are Orthodox, probably less than 1/2 % of Americans are concerned about Jewish holidays. Couple that with the number of Jewish holidays and the fact that they are moving target, it’s unreasonable to expect such a concern.

    Orthodox Jews are not the only Jews who “are concerned about Jewish holidays.”

    The percentage of Jews across the United States is significantly lower than the percentage of Jews in white-collar professions who attend conferences and similar events.

    As Shlock Rock points out in one of their songs, and they’re certainly not the first ones to do it, the contributions of Jews to science, mathematics, the arts, business, technology, and just about every other higher pursuit is extremely disproportionate.

    Even if event organizers can get away with not caring about scheduling events on Jewish holidays because few Jews are interested in attending, that doesn’t make it right, and we shouldn’t take it lying down.

    I have personally encountered event organizers who indicated that they scheduled events on Jewish holidays only out of ignorance and would have tried to avoid them if they’d known.

    (Alas, I’ve also encountered non-religious Jews who have intentionally scheduled events on Jewish holidays, knowing that observant Jews would be unable to attend, out of hostility toward “those crazy ultra-religious Jews who make the rest of us look bad.”)

    The fact that the holidays are a moving target is exactly why I wrote the Web page to list them.

    Finally, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

    Reply
  11. jik Post author

    Purim is a perfectly valid work day. Yes, the obligation to hear megillah is best fulfilled in a group of 10, and yes, it presents a difficulty if you have to be at a conference and can’t read or don’t own (even if you can read) a megillah, but it’s not a no-work day. The desire to celebrate it with your family “properly” — which you acknowledge later in the page — applies no more to Purim than to any other holiday.

    I think you are focusing too much on the halachic issues and not enough on non-halachic issues. As you note, Purim is less of a concern for Orthodox Jews, but it is more of a concern for non-Orthodox Jews, many of whom celebrate Purim with their families but do not observe many of the other holidays.

    It’s inevitable that some of the distinctions I draw on this page are going to be arbitrary and not exactly right. To make all of them exactly right would completely overwhelm any unknowledgeable person trying to use the information. I am comfortable with the distinction I’ve drawn.

    On the other hand, Tisha B’Av has pretty strong anti-work prohibitions at least until noon, but you list it among the “ok to work” days without any further discussion.

    This is exactly the opposite situation as Purim, which is why it ends up treated differently from Purim — the prohibitions of Tisha B’Av are more of a concern for Orthodox Jews but less of a concern for non-Orthodox Jews.

    The day before Pesach-I should be mentioned. While of course you can work on that day, it’s generally a heavy travel and prep day.

    If someone had to go to a conference on the day before Pesach, they could — they would simply need to plan in advance to make it possible. My goal here is not to make it easy for Jews to attend events, but rather to make it possible for them to attend. As you point out, I’m asking schedulers to do an awful lot by asking them to avoid all these days, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to add a day which can be worked around by the attendee.

    The fact of the matter is that the Fall conference season hits Sukkot …

    All of this is true. My goal is not to try to tell people that they must avoid these dates, but rather to provide them with the information they need to know what dates they should at least be trying to avoid. In my experience, most of the time they simply don’t know.

    Please do not use this page as a substitute for in-person discussion. You are more likely to get cooperation by letting the organizers know in person.

    Yes, of course, but once you reach the point in the conversation of actually trying to explain what dates they should be trying to avoid, face-to-face conversation is no longer terribly effective, because it’s just so darn complicated. Hence this page.

    And given the lead time for organizing many conferences, by the time you find out the date, it’s probably way too late for them to do anything anyhow: all you’re going to do by coming in blazing is make them feel bad and defensive. Which may be the result you want at the time, but won’t solve the problem long-term.

    I’ve never asked someone to change a date that had already been scheduled because I couldn’t attend, and I wouldn’t dream of doing that. My goal is to put the information in people’s hands to enable them to take it into account when they’re doing the scheduling.

    Reply
  12. jik Post author

    I’m going to post some comments I’ve received about the holidays page and how I responded to them. Others can feel free to post their own comments here as well.

    I also got one of the days of Chaunkah under Who Needs a Family.

    I intentionally treated the first day of Chanukah separately from all the others, because it seems like the one that adults with young children are most likely to want to spend with their families. It’s an arbitrary distinction, but there are a lot of arbitrary distinctions in this page.

    You should add a new category for Special Dietary Concerns for fast days, and Pesach and Sukkot Chol Hamoed. Many more Jews would for example work on Pesach than would eat a bagel brunch on Pesach. Many observant Jews will work on fast days but would prefer not to attend a business lunch. Many observant Jews work on Sukkot but may not eat bread or try to get home by an early dinner hour or wouldn’t go to a breakfast meeting.

    This page is already way, way more information than unobservant or non-Jewish people ever want to have to deal with. I don’t want to overload them even more; the more information I include here, the less likely it is that they’ll pay attention to any of it.

    All of the things you mention are things that can be dealt with by an observant Jew, one way or another. My intention is not to make it easy for Jews to attend events on holidays, but rather to make it possible for them to do so. I think it’s reasonable to expect Jewish attendees to meet event schedulers half-way, so I don’t think this information belongs.

    I think the explanation of Shabbat should be up at the top with the meta-list. You should also include a reminder about Shabbat in the Can’t Touch This list.

    I’ve added a mention of Shabbat to the complete list at the top.

    It would be incorrect to mention Shabbat in the “Can’t Touch This” list, because in fact many people who observe the holidays on that list don’t observe Shabbat. This is why it is mentioned in the “It’s all about the numbers” list instead; the people who observe the additional holidays listed there are the ones who also observe Shabbat.

    I think “sundown the day before” is vague and hard to explain. If you are trying to make life better for observant Jews, maybe getting home dark for a holiday is a bad choice of words – make that much firmer. You may wish to explicitly mention that at certains times of the year sunset is so early (i.e. 4 pm) that Jews will actually be taking some hours off their regular work day to be home on time. You may wish to point people to a website that gives Shabbat times as an added service and be more blunt about how being one minute late home is just not OK.

    Again, I think this is Too Much Information.

    Reply

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