A Temple senior fights a seemingly losing battle to reschedule the school's commencement ceremony next spring because it conflicts with the second day of the religious holiday of Shavuot.
Sharon Litwinoff is accustomed to standing before a crowd. She’s studying theater at Temple University.
But when other seniors in the Center for the Arts receive their diplomas in May, Litwinoff may not be taking the stage. Temple’s commencement ceremony is scheduled for May 16, which is the second day of Shavuot next year, a sacred Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after the first Pesach seder.
Litwinoff, who was raised in an observant Conservative household, said she learned of the scheduling conflict in August and immediately contacted the school’s Hillel, Chabad and provost, among other campus institutions, to see if the date could be switched. An official with the provost’s office met with Litwinoff in late October, she said, and informed her that the school would not be adjusting its calendar.
“I think it’s terrible that they don’t feel the need to adhere to the diversity of their students,” said Litwinoff, who comes from West Orange, N.J.
The official position of the university, as stated on its website and elsewhere, is that Temple, a publicly funded school, does not recognize religious holidays, but that the school respects the beliefs of faculty, students and staff.
Temple released the academic calendar for this school year in May 2011, two years in advance of the commencement ceremony, said Hillel Hoffman of the university communications department.
He said the event is always on the Thursday following the final examination period and cannot be changed because other elements on the schedule, such as the start of the summer academic session, are based on that date.
He also said it would interfere with the travel plans of people who plan to attend the ceremony and that the school hasn’t heard from anyone other than Litwinoff about the scheduling conflict. He pointed to the fact that the school holds classes on Good Friday as an explanation for the lack of official recognition of religious holidays.
If there is a conflict between a class and a holiday, such as Yom Kippur, students can contact their professor and have their absence excused, he said.
The Center for the Arts does not hold a winter commencement ceremony, but Temple has offered Litwinoff the opportunity to participate in the School of Media and Communication’s ceremony in February 2013 as an alternative to the spring ceremony.
“This was an accommodation just for her and her family,” Hoffman said.
Litwinoff said she does not see the options of participating in the commencement ceremony in February or in May 2014, also offered, as adequate alternatives.
Cynthia Schwartz, Litwinoff’s mother, said she considers Temple to be part of her family. She and her sister graduated from there. And years before that, her father graduated from the university’s dental school.
She said the commencement ceremony would prevent the family from properly observing the holiday and could mean they would have to drive on the holiday and stay somewhere near the university.
“For me, I’m just kind of stunned in this day and age that a university schedules this a number of years out and doesn’t check a calendar,” Schwartz said.
A similar situation arose in 2009 when leaders of the Rutgers University Hillel learned that the commencement ceremony for spring 2010 would conflict with Shavuot and informed university officials. A committee of faculty, students and staff reviewed the schedule and decided to move the date to accommodate those who celebrated the holiday.
“Once the decision was made to change the date, there was a tremendous sense of gratitude and thankfulness that they were taking the needs of Jewish students seriously,” said Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director of the Rutgers Hillel.
When asked about the Rutgers’ decision, Hoffman reiterated that Temple’s policy is not to recognize religious holidays.
Temple Hillel director Phil Nordlinger said Jewish students run into scheduling conflicts every year with the High Holidays and that faculty members generally accommodate students’ needs. He said the commencement ceremony issue received consideration at the highest levels of the university.
“We understand how difficult it is for a large institution to change schedules that have been made years in advance,” Nordlinger said.
Litwinoff remains determined to find a solution to the scheduling conflict. She has asked the faculty chair of the theater department if the ceremony could be held after sundown on May 16, when Shavuot will have ended. She said she has not yet received a response.
She also said a Hillel staff member suggested that Jewish students at Temple could organize their own graduation ceremony.
“That was more of a last resort if the university refused to do anything. I’m hoping that somebody in the university will realize this is a problem. Whether or not they made a mistake when scheduling the ceremony, once it’s been pointed out to them, they can’t in good faith not do anything about it.”
This is not the first time Litwinoff faced a conflict between her academic responsibilities and religious observance. Earlier this semester, she said a professor told her it would be unfair to non-religious students to excuse her from classes because of the fall Jewish holidays.
She has not yet received her final grades and does not know what effect her absences might have.
“Probably the biggest thing I have learned at Temple is to stand up for yourself and to not take ‘no’ for an answer,” Litwinoff said. “And no, they do not offer a class in fighting unethical bureaucracies — they offer a four-year B.A. program.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which religious movement Litwinoff is affiliated with.