Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thank You, PrezBo, for your commitment to pluralism and diversity!

Although I did so from my couch and laptop in Toronto, I was extremely proud as a Columbia student to watch the 2009 University Commencement ceremony, which brings together graduates from all of Columbia's four undergraduate and dozen graduate schools. With over 30,000 graduates, family and friends in attendance, the ceremony takes over all of Columbia's Morningside Campus. While no individual graduates are singled out at this event (which are reserved for individual school class days), this is nevertheless a momentous occasion, as the President of the University, Lee Bollinger, officially conferred degrees on the sea of light blue caps and gowns which filled Low Plaza.
I write this short reflection to thank President Bollinger for his sensitivity to the needs of the University's Jewish students in his commitment to reschedule the 2010 commencement from its conflict with the major Jewish Holiday of Shavuot.
I believe that I speak for many observant students at Columbia when I say that my attendance at the school represents a commitment to being a part of the larger University, while staying true to my religious beliefs as well. While I am forced to miss classes for Jewish holidays, for which I often make up work or turn in assignments early, I perform this balancing act because I care about both my traditions, and my responsibilities to courses just like every other Columbia Student.
Some faculty, as stated in the report of the University Senate's Education Committee, opposed moving commencement for Shavuot for the reason that the school is a secular institution, and should not respect religious observances. On the contrary, PrezBo publicly threw his support behind the charge, stating:
“When there are a substantial number of students who have a conflict of conscience ... we want to do everything we can to accommodate that,” Bollinger said in an interview on Friday, when he first announced the change. He noted that Columbia is a secular university, which usually accommodates religious groups with makeup exams and classes, but “this is one that you can’t help people make up.”
As a well-spoken academic and public figure, Bollinger recognized his commitment to pluralism and inclusion at Columbia. The date change is not forcing anyone to mark Shavuot; rather it is giving all who wish to the opportunity to recognize and be recognized as part of the larger University.
Many argued that the date change would lead to a slippery slope; the University calendar, set ten years in advance, already lists a conflict between Commencement and Ramadan in 2018. On the contrary, changing the date for Shavuot should be a first step towards an equal commitment towards accommodating Ramadan as well.

Columbia holds a Baccalaureate service each year on the Sunday prior to Commencement. In this non-denominational service, students of all faiths are able to publicly share their engagement with their own faith traditions as a larger Columbia community. This past Sunday, Jacob Taber, a close friend of mine, spoke eloquently about how his observance of Shabbat, as a period of menucha, rest, from routine helped him to get more out of his four years at Columbia. This is a model of how religion should operate in the public sphere. All religions should be able to share their values and contribute to a more colorful discourse; no religion should be imposed or forced on any member or facet of the university.

In the book of Bemidbar, the Torah states (10:10):
וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
And on your days of joy, and on your festivals, and new moons - you should blast trumpets on your sacrifices and peace offerings, and it shall be a remembrance before your God, I am Adonai your Lord.
Thank you, PrezBo, Hillel Staff, and others for their work in allowing us to hear both the words of the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, and the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance at University Commencement in May 2010!

For Further reading: Columbia Spectator

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