University professors, Jewish students hassle over holiday exemptions

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By Eliana Block, for the Mitzpeh, @ElianaBlock

When Noah Bar-Shain’s professor said missing his three-hour lecture for the final days of Passover was equivalent to missing a one-hour class three times, he quickly turned to Maryland Hillel.

“Some students are religiously comfortable going to class on those holidays, but I personally, am not,” the junior bioengineering major said. “I got Rabbi Neuman and Rabbi Israel involved and they told [the professor] ‘this is a holiday.’”

Bar-Shain is not alone in this holiday procedure.

While the University of Maryland’s policies and procedures regarding religious observance have remained liberally accommodating since 1991, this does not prevent Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Ari Israel and Orthodox Educator Rabbi Ari Neuman from dealing with 100 cases of student-teacher conflicts each year.

Hillel encountered one case where a math professor refused to reschedule a test for a student who was observing the first two days of Sukkot, during which many observant Jews refrain from work. When the student appealed, the teacher was still reluctant to reschedule and instead recalculated the student’s test percentages by condensing four test grades into three scores, bearing more weight to each test. Coincidentally, the student needed to take this professor’s courses for two more semesters to fulfill major requirements, and the outcome was the same each time: three tests, not four.

Departmental policies vary

This university provides teachers with a basic policy and procedure guideline on its website that instructs professors to avoid scheduling assignments and tests during major holidays and on Saturdays. The university’s Faculty Handbook stresses that professors’ failure to adhere to this policy “may result in a false perception that the campus is insensitive to the religious diversity of campus.”

Excerpt from the Faculty Handbook, which can be found at https://www.faculty.umd.edu/

Excerpt from the Faculty Handbook, which can be found at https://www.faculty.umd.edu/

While many professors from various departments heed the handbook’s warning, professors from the Israel Studies and Hebrew Studies departments are notorious for canceling classes during major Jewish holidays. This is not departmental policy. Rather, it depends on the teacher and student body of a particular class.

“We don’t have a departmental policy,” Israel Studies Director Yoram Peri said. “Each professor can decide according to their own approach.”

Peri himself grew up in a religious Jewish household, but is no longer practicing. Still, Peri canceled the two upper-level classes he teaches for the high holidays and plans to cancel class on Sukkot if a “large minority say they will not come.”

“On a principle level, if a student for any religious reason cannot come to the class, of course we will take it into consideration without a question,” Peri said.

Holidays may fall consecutively

In the past, the University’s official schedule failed to recognize lesser-known holidays like Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which earmark the days for singing, dancing and prayer.

Because the festival days at the end of Passover were not on the official university calendar in spring 2013, Bar-Shain’s honors seminar teacher said he would not approve Bar-Shain’s absence. The professor failed to see how his lecture was unlike a rabbi’s sermon, and Bar-Shain tried explaining how the holiday prevented him from doing different kinds of work.

“Holidays which have two bookends can often create havoc for a particular class because often the days that end up being the days you can’t write or do any thoughtful action are the same days in the week,” Neuman said.

Faced with failing the class because of a single absence, Bar-Shain approached Neuman to appeal to department heads to add the second days of Passover to the university-recognized calendar, which it did.

“We simply had to make the professor aware of the campus policy of accommodation and he allowed the student to miss class,” Bill Dorland, Honors College Director, wrote in an e-mail. “There are cases nearly every year, unfortunately, but none that haven’t been resolved quickly.”

While the incident with Bar-Shain was resolved, Dorland was sympathetic to the professor’s mistake.

“I don’t think there is a question of what I believe. It is clear that missing three hours of class is missing three hours of class. In most cases, those three hours would be spread over a week (MWF, or TuTh), but there are classes that squeeze all three hours into one meeting. It does not really matter how the hours are distributed in the week; what matters is how long students and faculty members are in class together,” Dorland wrote.

Neuman explained that less-known holidays that come after a blast of other Jewish holidays, like Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah and the last two days of Passover, prove particularly challenging for teachers.

“Professors get really confused by the holiday of Sukkot because they think that they’re through the Jewish holiday muck when they get past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said. “Professors at that point are fed up, and they can’t imagine that this is even true or possible and sometimes you’ll have these challenges where professors don’t know what to do and lash out at students.”

Accommodations need only go so far

But not every time do student complaints get clearance; sometimes Israel takes the side of the professor. This happened in a case where a student felt he deserved six absences, three personal days in addition to his three excused religious absences. The student said he wanted “the same rights as other classmates,” religious absences aside, in order to attend his grandmother’s birthday celebration. Israel did not consent.

“The business professor came to me and said ‘look, I’ll be honest with you, the only reason I approved three absences was to accommodate for religious students,’” Israel said. “The professor only gave that accommodation because of religious students, and he built in a framework for everyone to be equal.”

While Israel strongly views religious observance as something above a student’s choice, he does not want students to take advantage of University accommodations. He believes professors have a right to deny a student exemption from class on days they miss traveling back to campus.

“You don’t have to celebrate your holiday back in New Jersey, you can holistically celebrate your holiday here,” he said. “Students don’t need a travel day, students want a travel day and that’s a very gray area and some point the gig’s up.”

Bar-Shain believes the situation with his Honors professor was a rare case compared to his past professors who gave him “immediate permission” to take off for holidays. But if he could go back, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I made the choice that religious observance is the number one priority in my life,” he said. “I’m not going to break it for number two priorities such as education or friends. I made that [religious observance] choice before I decided to go to the University of Maryland, before I decided to take that class.”

Correction: The article originally stated that Shmini Atzeret was not on the university-recognized calendar. It was actually the festivals days at the end of Passover that were missing from the university’s calendar.

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