Graduation a conflict for Jewish students’ holiday

Temple is moving forward with the scheduled commencement ceremony on May 16 despite the effort of one student who started an online petition to have the date changed to not conflict with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Sharon Litwinoff, a senior theater major who is scheduled to graduate this spring, started the petition during winter break after she said she felt administrators did not offer a proper accommodation for the conflicting dates. The petition held 378 signers as of press time.

Hillel Hoffmann, assistant director of University Communications, said that the university calendar is published two years ahead of time, and is “blind” to all religious holidays.

Litwinoff first found out about the discrepancy last August 2012, when her sister told her while planning for commencement that it fell on the Jewish holiday. Litwinoff said she then contacted administrators at Hillel at Temple, Temple Chabad and Kimberly Guyer, who was then assistant dean of the former School of Communication and Theater – now the School of Media and Communication – who then connected her with the offices of the president and the provost.

In October 2012, Litwinoff met with Betsy Leebron Tutelman, senior vice provost for strategic initiatives and communications to discuss the conflict and alternative options.

“They sent a representative from the provost’s office to meet with me to get students opinions on the conflict, but that wasn’t actually what they were doing, they were just sending someone to meet me face to face so that I wouldn’t feel like it was a big faceless institution,” Litwinoff said.

Leebron Tutelman said that the provost’s office offered Litwinoff, as well as any other student who wishes to celebrate the holiday, three alternative options: attend the SMC graduation on Feb. 1, the 2014 commencement or attend the School of Pharmacy graduation with the provost and a school representative a day later, on May 17.

Litwinoff said that she would not attend commencement as held on May 16, as she would be in synagogue. She said she was still undecided as to whether she would attend an alternative ceremony.

Leebron Tutelman would not say whether the university ever considered the option of changing graduation, or if a change was still being discussed. But presently, no plans for change have been announced. The university has booked the Liacouras Center for May 16 and the venue is already booked for the following day, Leebron Tutelman said.

“It is safe to say that many, many families made plans [for the scheduled date],” Hoffmann said.

In the first days of break, Litwinoff formed a petition on Change.org, to gather 500 signatures in support of one of three alternatives she provided in the petition: changing the time or date of commencement to accommodate the holiday, or changing the departmental or school graduations.

Litwinoff said that she sent the petition out to her email contacts and people on her Facebook page, and was surprised at the support that came with the petition. Litwinoff also contacted five Jewish members of the Board of Trustees, three of which she said responded, including Leonard Barrack, who suggested she contact the Anti-Defamation League.

[blockquote who=”Sharon Litwinoff” what=”Senior Theater Major”]This is one of those situations where it just doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are.[/blockquote]

The ADL sent a letter to the university with a calendar of Reform Jewish holidays.

Hoffmann said that despite the petition, no other student has issued a formal complaint to the university about the date. Litwinoff said that she expects that some students would be unable to attend by the conflicting dates, and that many students’ families would not be able to attend.

Phil Nordlinger, director of Hillel at Temple, Main Campus’ Jewish community center, said the center supports students who feel a conflict between the dates, and hopes that an accommodation will be reached. The center is not opposing the current commencement date.

Leebron Tutelman said that the university reached out to Temple Hillel and Temple Chabad to hold services for the first two days of Shavuot, on May 14 and 15.

Litwinoff said she doesn’t think the commencement will be changed at this point, but hopes that administrators will look closer at religious calendars for future dates.

“It’s been a nightmare. [The university administrators] are very quick to send messengers to tell me how they personally are empathetic and feel for me and they want me to come to graduation, but that’s just wasted energy. This is one of those situations where it just doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are if you are not doing anything about it,” Litwinoff said, adding that she thinks it would take a major donor withdrawing support to get something changed.

Leebron Tutelman said that the university traditionally schedules the commencement ceremony for the Thursday after the last Wednesday of finals.

Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks, celebrates the time when the Jewish people received the Torah. It is celebrated seven weeks after the second day of Passover.

John Moritz can be reached at john.moritz@temple.edu or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU. 

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