Like most college seniors, Sharon Litwinoff is eager to attend her graduation ceremony.
But because Temple University’s commencement is scheduled for May 16 – the second day of Shavuot – she may not be able to.
The West Orange High School graduate has begun a campaign of online petitions and emails to university administrators, urging that the date be changed to accommodate those who observe the Jewish holy day.
“If they do not change the date, I cannot go to graduation,” she told NJ Jewish News.
Beyond the petition drive, Litwinoff has reached out to Jewish members of Temple’s board of trustees, as well as the campus Hillel chapter and the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
Litwinoff, who describes herself as an observant Conservative Jew, attended the Prozdor high school program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She became bat mitzva at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
A theater major, she discovered the conflict last August. For Conservative and Orthodox Jews, the second day of Shavuot is considered a “yom tov,” with requirements for prayer and restrictions on work, travel, and secular activities.
“Temple needs to provide its students and faculty with a reasonable option to participate in May Commencement ceremonies without compromising their religious beliefs,” according to the petition she created. “By ignoring the scheduling conflict, Temple is forcing the Jewish members of its community to choose which is more important: religious observance or the celebration of their achievements in higher education.”
By January 4, the petition had received more than 300 signatures.
Litwinoff recognizes the university faces “a major hassle to change the date, but I don’t think they have another option. This is not a small issue. I don’t know if you can use a legal term like discrimination, but it certainly doesn’t speak well for the university.”
She said the university should consider the public relations fallout.
“For alumni who feel strongly about this, they may be cutting off donations. For prospective students it could cause a lot of bad publicity. I don't see how they could want to risk that,” she said.
Sharon’s father, Phil Litwinoff, who supports her position, suggests the scheduling conflict was inadvertent.
“When they scheduled the graduation I don’t think anybody looked at a calendar to see when Shavuos was,” said Litwinoff, an accountant and president of the NJ Jewish News board of trustees. “I think it was ignorance. They were not paying attention.”
Not so, said a spokesperson for the university.
“For years Temple has set its commencement date for the Thursday immediately following final exams,” said Hillel Hoffmann, assistant director of news communications at the university. “That academic calendar is published at least two years in advance, so people can make travel plans.”
In a Jan 3 phone interview, Hoffmann told NJJN, “Temple’s official academic calendar does not recognize Jewish holidays or any other religious holidays. We have classes on Good Friday, which is a holy day to many students. This has been known for a long time. Despite that, Temple totally respects the right or faculty, students, and staff to observe. Families who are unable to participate can work with their deans to make alternative arrangements. It happens all the time.
“Is there any chance Temple will move the ceremony?” he said. “As far as I know it is still going to go ahead with its plan.”
Phil Nordlinger, director of Temple University Hillel, said his organization is looking at options if the graduation is not rescheduled.
“It looks pretty clear the administration can’t change the date of commencement, but we are working with them,” he said. “We are offering services for Shavuot on campus and there are synagogues in walking distance of campus.”
Nancy Baron-Baer, associate regional director of Philadelphia’s ADL chapter, also seemed resigned to the graduation going ahead on the holiday.
“We are in the process of conversations with the university about some steps they are taking to make accommodations to her and other students who may be celebrating the holiday,” she said.
Baron-Baer could not recall any examples of a college graduation being changed to accommodate Jewish students’ religious needs.
“In the last two years I can remember a high graduation scheduled on Shavuos, and the school was able to move the graduation day to another date and time,” she said. “But in a university it is a much more complicated event.”
Rutgers University changed the date of its 2010 commencement, which originally coincided with Shavuot, following a 2009 recommendation by the university Senate.