September is a busy month as students come and go during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur breaks. And while most students will enjoy the time off, I can’t help but linger on a peculiar thought: What is the mission of the State University of New York, and does it include the preferential treatment of Jewish holidays?
The question is not whether Jewish students, faculty and staff deserve the right to celebrate; rather, how should they be accommodated in relation to everyone else? Furthermore, are observers put at an unnecessary disadvantage if asked to practice in private, assuming classes remain in session during the holidays?
There are strong opinions on both sides that raise an entirely separate set of issues concerning First Amendment rights. Does the law require schools to be inclusive, reflecting the growing diversity of students? Or does it ask schools to exclude religious holidays altogether?
On one hand, selective observance of holidays is effectively an endorsement of religion. Binghamton University does not acknowledge many notable religious holidays, such as Holy Week in the Christian faith, on its yearly calendar. In fact, Jewish holidays in September are the only exceptions to the rule. Nor does the University celebrate legal holidays such as Veteran’s Day, which are applicable to all citizens in a secular context.
Yet we should also consider the needs of the student body as a whole, regardless of religious affiliation. There is a significant Jewish population on campus, and it would be spiteful to uphold the doctrine of religious freedom by retracting the freedom of others (in this case, replacing the freedom of Jewish students).
Unfortunately, smaller religious groups become inadvertent victims to the demographics in which they reside, but not from malicious intent.
Then again, with all good intentions aside, many would argue it is mainstream acceptance, not fairness, that keeps Christianity and Judaism prominent in public education.
Perhaps we will learn from Stony Brook University, the only SUNY flagship to announce and execute policies no longer observing faith-based holidays (excluding Christmas).
Vice Provost Dr. Charles Robbins has come under criticism for his decision.
One such critic is Arthur Shertzer, president of United University Professions, a union representing more than 35,000 members on 29 SUNY campuses.
Another is Washington Post contributor Jordon Sekulow, who claims that by removing religious holidays from the class schedule, students are put in the “awkward position” of choosing between faith and classroom discussion.
“The logic is that if we celebrate no one, we honor everyone,” Robbins said.
However, Dr. Robbins has also been explicit in stating that Stony Brook will not penalize students who practice their beliefs. Classes will not be mandatory, practicing students’ absences will be excused and there will be no exams, papers or assignments due during the holidays.
“The bottom line is that religious observance is, and must always be, a personal choice, not an institutional mandate,” he said.
Ultimately, we should listen to the experts such as Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee: “Schools can limit the time and place of religious expression, but they cannot ban it.” When it comes to religious holidays, we can accommodate all by having none.