Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin,
I am having trouble navigating university as an Orthodox Jew. I grew up in a small town with almost no Jews and dealt with a lot of nasty anti-Semitic remarks as a child. Eventually, I found my way to religion during my college years.
Now, in a post-BA program, I’m running into problems again. For example, I had an important paper due during the month of Jewish holidays at the beginning of the academic year. For many days that month, I wasn’t able to work on the paper because using a computer and/or writing is not allowed on those special days. When I asked for an extension of a few days, I was turned down. I suggested that the school look into anti-Semitism on campus and received an eye-roll from the Dean.
All I want is religious sensitivity and accommodation – how can I go about getting that?
We are very wary of using the word anti-Semitism just as we are wary of words like racism, homophobia or xenophobia. They tend to be discussion enders rather than starters – “Ha! You are a horrible, hate-filled person and so you are wrong.”
We’re not even sure of what a commonly accepted definition of anti-Semitism might look like. We are equally unsure that what you experienced as a child was anti-Semitism. We think it is important that we Jews try to vaccinate ourselves against the virus of victimhood so prevalent in contemporary culture. We vigorously oppose Jews being beaten on the streets of Brooklyn. But we equally vigorously oppose people of Chinese background being beaten on those same streets and we view the breakdown of law-abiding norms and rise of vicious criminality as dangerous signs of a society’s impending extinction. In that landscape, the problem is greater than anti-Semitism.
Is it nice to be called horrible names based on your religion in elementary school? No. It also isn’t nice to be called four-eyes, metal-mouth, or other words that we don’t even want to write because they are such horrible slurs. However, the point we want to make is that young children need to be taught how special language is and how to use it for good not for bad. Immature youngsters use words to get a reaction. They may be bullies, they may be insecure victims who want to pass victimhood on to someone else, they may be repeating what they heard at home. Labeling their words as anti-Semitic or racist or anything else is counter-productive. It does no good for a teacher to protect one group against insults while ignoring other insults that are flying in the classroom. We can guarantee that those kids who called you names were not behaving as stellar and upright citizens to everyone else.
Now you are an adult and you must learn to quiet that hurt child in you. Using the word anti-Semitism while asking for special religious accommodation is absolutely the wrong way to go. You had assignments due over the month of holy days, when you could not attend class or write on many days of the month. We and our children and thousands of other religious Jews, have all been there. Everyone else in the class has, let’s say, 17 days to work on something and because you are faithful to the Torah and its Sabbath and holyday laws, you have only 10 days. Or a test is being given on a holy day and the professor refuses to assign another date.
Here is our answer; it is true although you may not appreciate it. You chose to go to school in America, not Israel. America does not work on a Jewish calendar. Now, it is possible that if your professors see that you work harder than anyone else and that you are pleasant to deal with, they may be willing to accommodate you. But that is an accommodation that deserves your gratitude. It is not your right. It’s not your entitlement. When there is a whiff that you are threatening a legal solution (and hurling the word anti-Semitism about most definitely does just that), you are inviting dislike and resentment. Time to be a big boy, Sam.
Many Jews and most non-Jews have no idea what Torah observant Jews may and may not do on their holy days. You can be quite sure that most professors and administrators you speak to know Jews who drive to a temple on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) for a few hours, and then go out to eat lunch. They may themselves be that person! They have no understanding of what you mean when you say you can’t work on that day. They hear you saying that you would rather not work on that day, not that you can’t. Most people have never even heard of some of the holy days that come in the fall. So, when you stroll in spouting about your holy days, you are catching people unaware and come off as someone trying to game the system.
The only time you have a claim is if the institution is accommodating to everyone but you. Do Moslem students get special treatment during Ramadan? Do Hindu students get extra time off for their special days? If Jews are the only students not being accommodated, then this is a different case. We doubt that.
We can tell you story after story of Jewish students walking miles on a holiday (since driving, too, is not allowed) to be under observation at a school while their peers were taking a test and the religious student had to be ready to start the exam as soon as the holy day ended. We can tell you stories of students putting in 20-hour-days to finish papers because of the holy day crunch. A great deal of thought and preparation has to go into asking for the absolute minimum of what is needed and the student needs to show a willingness to greatly inconvenience him or herself more than the professor.
Is it nice when an extension is given or accommodation made? Yes. That usually happens after diligent, outstanding, religious students are put through the wringer and they leave a sterling impression. Brazenly demanding that you be granted an extension or accommodation harms not only you but all religious Jews who follow in your path.
We have a feeling this is not what you hoped to hear from us, Sam, but it is true and real.
Wishing you success,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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