University policies not strong enough to accommodate religious students

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By Jacob Schaperow

I think I’m a pretty good student. I pay attention in class, I do the readings and homework, I go to office hours, and I never cut class. But I skipped nine classes last semester. And, thanks to the way my Thursday/Friday classes fall, I’m going to miss 18 classes this semester. This is because, for me, as an observant Jew, celebrating the Jewish holidays takes precedence over attending class. With hundreds of religiously observant Jewish students enrolled at the University of Maryland, it’s time the university stopped scheduling classes on the holidays.

Halakha, Jewish law, requires that traditionally observant Jews refrain from performing creative work on the holidays. This means no note-taking and no using electronics, as well as some subtler restrictions, such as not planning for events taking place after the holiday.

When I spoke to him about going to class on the holidays, Rabbi Ari Neuman, the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus rabbi at Maryland Hillel, pointed me to a commentary on the Torah portion Emor. The medieval Jewish scholar Nachmanides brings in a concept known as “the spirit of the day.”Nachmanides says that while one may be able to find a way to go about daily business on a holiday, nonetheless, it is considered a violation of the “spirit of the day.” Holidays are for enjoying, not for stressing out.

As a worried freshman, I attended my Calculus II class during Passover a year and a half ago. I got to the 8 a.m. class with only my textbook and my Shabbat clothes. While I was not complying with Nachmanides’ “spirit of the day” principle, with no notebook and no pencil, I took all the necessary precautions to avoid directly violating the Halakha. Or so I thought. The professor announced a pop quiz. Sitting in the front, center of the gigantic lecture hall in the physics building, I did not know what to do. I passed the quiz the TA handed me to the student behind me, and I waited 10 minutes or so until the quiz was over. At the end of the class, I approached my math professor to explain how I could not write on Passover.

More than a year later, I have decided not to attend classes on holidays, period. The university I attend claims to respect my religious choices, but this value is not reflected in the way the academic calendar is scheduled.

The University of Maryland student attendance policy states, “Students should not be penalized because of observances of their religious beliefs.” While the policy says that we should be given the opportunity to make up missed assignments, the real-life situation for students taking off class often differs from this ideal. The answer to the question “Did I miss anything important?” is always yes. The missed quizzes, in-class assignments and group work can negatively impact students’ grades and mental health.

Do you agree? Disagree? Got ideas on how a schedule change could be implemented? Send a letter to The Mitzpeh to make your voice heard!

Jacob is a junior civil engineering major. He can be reached at jacob.schaperow@gmail.com

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