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Stanford fails its Jewish community

Stanford welcomed us (back) to campus this year with several messages from administrators updating us on recent initiatives and their goals for the year ahead. Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole wrote in an email to students that she wanted to “ensure every student feels a deep and abiding sense of community and belonging, and health and well-being.” Unfortunately, only two weeks into Fall Quarter, Stanford failed. 

This year, classes were held on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These holidays are the High Holy Days of Judaism, so-called because they are the holiest days of the year for Judaism. Rosh Hashanah lasts two days and Yom Kippur one. Many Jews attend services for most of the day on these holidays. Fasting is considered a key part of observing Yom Kippur. Yet, Stanford decided that classes would be held, and professors would be free to create assignments with no regard for students observing these days. 

Only a year ago, under pressure from the Jewish community, Stanford shortened and delayed the beginning of New Student Orientation to avoid conflicting with the High Holy Days and allow Jewish students to observe these milestones in the Jewish year without missing out. Somehow, the administration seems to believe that it is acceptable for students to miss classes but unacceptable for them to miss NSO.

Stanford did institute a policy under which students could inform their professors that they would be missing class and not be penalized for doing so. However, this system was laughably inadequate. The only notification students received about this came from Rabbi Kirschner of Hillel and was sent to the “kibbitz-means-chat” email distribution list, which does not reach all Jewish students. It would have been incredibly easy for Vice Provost Brubaker-Cole, the Office of Religious Life or anyone in Stanford’s administration to send an email out to all students to explain this policy. 

Even then, the policy leaves much to be desired. Students do not always feel comfortable telling their professors that they are Jewish and wish to attend services. Requiring students to do this puts the onus on us, rather than on Stanford. It also opens the door to uncomfortable and inappropriate conversations in which professors, not realizing the importance of these holidays, pressure students to attend class. It does not help that professors seem to be under-informed about these issues. Stanford could also easily send an email to all professors explaining the significance of these holidays and the policy regarding student absences.

Other universities have accommodated Jewish students. Some universities cancel classes (as do many public schools in the United States), and others record all classes on these days. Still others record classes but allow professors to opt out of recordings, provided they warn students about this on their syllabus. There are better policies in place at other universities than Stanford’s, which is overwhelmingly inadequate. 

It is not just Jewish students who are excluded by Stanford’s policies. Stanford has chosen not to include times for Muslim students to pray in the standard class schedule. Nor are there many changes made to accommodate students who fast for Ramadan. Yet, we take nearly a month off to celebrate Christmas. Similarly, if it is possible to cancel classes for President’s Day, a holiday with no particular constituency which has degenerated into a glorified nationwide mattress sale, it must be possible to cancel classes out of respect for a deeply meaningful religious tradition. Surely my religion matters more than discounted home goods.

If Stanford is truly serious about giving students a sense of belonging and community, the administration must put in the effort necessary to accommodate Jewish students celebrating High Holy Days. I am calling on Stanford to do more. Ideally, the university would cancel classes during the High Holy Days and make similar accommodations as needed for other religions. Failing that, Stanford needs to record classes whenever religious holidays conflict with them and make it clear to professors that students may miss class or turn in assignments after the holiday ends without repercussions or negotiation.

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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