A few people who read that my son and his classmates were going to be penalized in their medical school grades for missing so many days while fully observing the fall Jewish holidays, wrote me that they saw this as religious discrimination. I disagree.
As a mother, I was certainly unhappy to hear that my son’s hard work was going to be automatically downgraded, but I am intensely wary of throwing around the “D” word. Our society’s movement from being one of obligations and gratitude towards a culture built on rights and entitlements has gone hand in hand with an increase in litigious behavior. The word “discrimination” has become a loaded gun, and one which in my mind often blows up in the face of those who wield it. Certainly, a society needs a legal system to thrive, but I believe that as more laws trying to combat discrimination get put on the books, one consequence is the shattering of human relationships replaced by an increase in suspicion and hostility.
We can (and have) outlawed employer’s asking all sorts of questions or refusing to hire someone based on all sorts of criteria, but do we honestly think that those laws don’t come with a price? I know too many truly unprejudiced people who hired an employee and then were blindsided when the new hire proved incompetent or worse. They found that because the employee fit into a “protected” group firing that person was an expensive, legal nightmare. Among other things, can we truly proclaim that our minority youth unemployment rate is divorced from the speed with which the legal and media communities exploit the words “bigotry” and “discrimination”?
There was a time through much of the twentieth century when Jews were frequently excluded from jobs and schools solely because of being Jewish, as determined by their having Jewish names or appearances. This discrimination (in this case a proper use of the word) ended as people got to know their Jewish neighbors. If your child was sick were you not going to use the Jewish doctor with the excellent reputation and wonderful bedside manner? And having come to love him would you agitate for his son to be excluded from your alma mater? Would you rather see your business do less well than your competitor’s by refusing to hire the Jewish CPA? Would you rather remain unemployed than take a job in a Jewish-owned company? Were you really going to insist on not hiring your neighbor and friend? Like many other immigrant and minority groups, through hard work and good citizenship, that prejudice diminished as Jews gained a reputation and established relationships.
What does this have to do with my son today? A small minority of America’s Jewish population today adheres to Jewish law regarding things like Sabbath and holiday observances and kosher food. For those of us who believe that God spoke to Moses on Sinai, giving him rules by which the Jewish people should live and that those rules were faithfully handed down through the generations, it is a privilege to be part of that chain of transmission.
As part of that choice we know that certain activities, ranging from community baseball leagues with practices on Saturday to local youth drama groups with performances on Friday night are ones in which we, and our children, cannot participate. We cannot ignore the Sabbath and holidays any more than we can run into the neighborhood (unkosher) fast food restaurant. But in a free society, such as America, that is a voluntary choice we make and as with all choices, we need to accept the consequences.
Whether attending college or professional school or working, we know that needing to be home by 4 p.m. on winter Friday afternoons for the Sabbath (whose beginning is connected to sunset) or not being able to work on Saturday no matter how urgent the business emergency, will most likely be alien to the culture of most schools and offices. We recognize that it is not necessarily discriminatory if those in positions of responsibility don’t automatically concede, “No problem. Of course I’ll change my expectations to make things work for you.” There are four ways for Jews to deal with this. The first is to establish one’s own businesses and schools, which partially explains Jewish entrepreneurship in the last century but does have its limitations. The second way is to enclose ourselves in a secluded enclave, studying and working only within the confines of the Orthodox Jewish community. The third is to bring lawsuits or otherwise try to bludgeon others to accommodate us. (That method means that we must demand the same accommodations for members of all other religious groups as well, whose unintended consequences in my mind will lead to a lessening of America’s Christian nature and her subsequently being a less hospitable place for Jews.) The last method is to earn respect and forge relationships, refusing to see ourselves as victims.
The Jewish students in my son’s class who don’t observe the holy days and will be attending class rather than synagogue used words like, “discrimination” and “offended.” However, the six religious students whose grades were to be impacted were disappointed but accepting. They appreciate the overtures the school has made to them, for example going out of their way to provide kosher food at functions, and see the reality of lower grades simply as a willing price they pay for their loyalty to God’s commandments. They each could have chosen to go to medical school in Israel and instead chose to attend this particular school in America.
They responded to the news that class attendance was mandatory and a major part of the grading by accepting that they would have to work twice as hard to do as well as their classmates. They also decided to send a polite letter to the administration clarifying what their religious obligations were. They understood that since the members of the administration probably all had Jewish friends who were adamant about their Jewish identity at the same time as they ate pork, worked on the Sabbath and treated the Jewish holidays as little more than nice times for family get-togethers with perhaps an optional appearance at synagogue, those in charge might understandably be confused by the religious students’ position.
As it turned out, as they were composing this letter, they received an email informing them that the administration was considering changing their position. What happened? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that someone in the administration spoke about the issue with a Jewish friend or colleague who explained the students’ stance. Since the attendance policy was not implemented as a tool of prejudice and no defensive front was erected as happens when one is accused of being a bigot, the issue is being resolved without threats and with harmony, each side respectful of and appreciating the other. Which leaves this Jewish mother proud of her son and grateful for living in this wonderful country.