By Rachel Freeman
Beginning in fall 2013, SUNY New Paltz will hold classes on the religious holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as detailed in an email sent to students on Feb. 4.
L. David Eaton, vice president for enrollment management, said the Jewish holidays have been reflected on the academic calendar for almost the past 40 years.
He said the faculty began discussing these scheduling changes around 1997-98 and talked about them in the academic senate and during full faculty meeting, but given the delicate nature of the matter, it took until 2010, nearly 14 years, for it to come to a vote.
“It’s a really value-laden kind of question and the questions of course…that come up are ‘What about my religion, if I’m Muslim or Hindu or Christian,’ ‘Why not Good Friday,’ ‘Why not Ramadan?,’ etc.,” Eaton said. “The other aspect is that after four years, it’s tradition. Taking away a tradition from any group in a community is difficult.”
However, when it was put to a vote, Eaton said everyone had the chance to give their input and the faculty passed it by a large majority. He said the decision came out of “what is best for the institution in terms of delivering high quality academic experience.”
Ultimately, the conversation and final decision stemmed from the issue of disruption, such as in 2010 when there were two weeks of school in August followed by an entire week off because of when Rosh Hashanah fell.
“That was disruptive and particularly the science faculty…said ‘this is getting really difficult because labs only meet once a week and if you knock two Mondays out or two Wednesdays out, then we can’t get our work done,’” Eaton said.
He said when they began looking at the fall 2013 calendar in 2010, they realized they could not avoid having students come to school for one week, having the next week off and then returning, which pushed them to finally take action.
There have also been a number of complaints regarding evening classes which only meet once a week, Eaton said. Although they can still count it as an instructional day when they cancel classes after 3 p.m. before Rosh Hashnah or Yom Kippur, classes that only meet once a week lose a “good portion” of instructional time if they miss one or two days.
While these changes will not be new for students who come to the college next year, Eaton said they understand that this is a change for the Jewish community and for students, faculty and staff who come here under a certain assumption.
“I think we are empathetic and understand that this is a change and one that is going to cause disruption to them, but this is the direction the instituion has elected to go,” Eaton said. “It’s based on the overwhelming vote of the faculty who recommended the administration make these particular changes and we said based on the rationale, it makes sense to do so.”
Under New York State Education Law, “Any student who is unable, because of religious beliefs, to attend classes on a particular day or days, shall be excused from any examination, study, or work requirements. It shall be the responsibility of the faculty and of the administrative officials…to make available to each student… an equivalent opportunity to make up any examination, study, or work requirements which he may have missed because of such absence on a particular day or days.”
Eaton said this stipulation is not new, as it has applied to other students, faculty and staff because of New Paltz’s “diverse spiritual background,” but is new for those who observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Thus far, Eaton said he has received two telephone calls from parents who were upset because their children chose New Paltz partially because they were free to come home for the holidays and did not feel it was fair to change this prior to their graduation. He said he has not received any direct student feedback, but that some were involved in a conversation on Facebook.
Third-year geography major Ari Kaputkin, a Jewish student, said he was more upset about the lack of information provided in the actual email announcing the changes, rather than the changes themselves.
“The press release gives zero explanation as to why the schedule needed to be revised, why these days were chosen, or what alternatives were considered, and instead basically states ‘the changes were made because we made them,’” Kaputkin said. “The lack of why, and only the how is what offends me.”
Erin Healy, a fourth-year visual arts major said she believes the changes will not fix the issue at hand and could make things worse because of the number of Jewish students and faculty.
“I think it’s ridiculous considering the fact that we have a large population of both Jewish students and professors and faculty members,” she said. “Students are just going to end up missing classes and professors are going to have to cancel their classes which therefore solves nothing, and in turn, makes it harder for students who
participate in Jewish holidays, as well as professors.”
Third-year micro and macro social change major Jaklin Levine Pritzker said as a Jewish student, she is unhappy she no longer gets the high holidays off, but understands the decision as there are “so many religions, spiritualities, beliefs and important days of the year” and choosing which ones are “the most ‘important’ is a very subjective and difficult task.”
Eaton said that if the schedule was going to change, someone was going to “get caught in it” and have a difficult time, but that it is important to look at the decision process and appreciate the college’s ability to make these changes.
“It’s important to consider that it was more than thoroughly discussed and everybody had the opportunity to express their points of view. Religion and politics are difficult for people to talk about,” he said. “It takes a very tolerant and respectful community to be able to navigate those and New Paltz demonstrated that it is one of those communities and I think that’s something to be proud of.”
Additional information about the new schedule can be found on the New Paltz website under “FAQ: Changes to the Academic Calendar.”