Last year, when Jewish students at Dartmouth looked ahead to the fall’s academic calendar, they noticed something was awry: the school year was scheduled to begin on Rosh Hashanah. They quickly alerted the administration, and the oversight was corrected, with class postponed until Sept. 16. But then what should have been a story about the college’s constructive response to student concerns took an odd turn. Dartmouth’s administration decided to make up the cancelled Rosh Hashanah classes–by scheduling new ones on Shabbat.
Needless to say, this did not sit well with some Jews on campus, both Sabbath-observant and not. What purpose did it serve, they asked, to reschedule from one holy day to another? Any why were students being required to make up class due to a Jewish holiday, when it would just have been cancelled for any other?
“The fact that it’s not treated as a given that we cancel class on Rosh Hashanah,” said Charlotte Kamin, a Conservative Jewish sophomore, “kind of isolates us,” by forcing all Dartmouth students to “make up classes for that, but not any other secular or Christian holiday.”
And so, at the end of the spring 2015 term, a group of students raised the Shabbat class issue with Dartmouth’s president, Philip Hanlon, who assured them that it would be taken care of. “Nothing really came of that,” said Kamin, who broached the subject again in a letter to the president in early August. She received no response. Finally, with the start of term looming, several students drafted an email to one of the university’s deans outlining their concerns. It went unanswered.
“To make the mistake initially is understandable,” said one of the signatories, Orthodox sophomore Eliza Ezrapour. “But the fact that it wasn’t rectified, that no one was spoken to—there are two rabbis on campus, Chabad and Hillel—it just seems like this shouldn’t have happened.”
“We didn’t want to take the heat [on campus] for having Saturday classes when it’s not good for us either,” she added.
For some students, the episode reflects an otherwise well-meaning administration that wanted to accommodate its religious Jewish students, but didn’t entirely think it through. “It’s very frustrating that many of my peers won’t be able to attend class on Shabbat,” said Jonah Kelly, a Jewish sophomore who does not observe Shabbat. “At the same time, I think the school’s intentions were good, they just may not have played out as well as they’d hoped.”
Others are less inclined to give the college the benefit of the doubt. “The school doesn’t really take into account the needs of religious students on a lot of levels,” said Cameron Isen, an Orthodox Jewish sophomore. “It’s been very difficult for us to get accommodations that we need.”
When he first arrived on campus, Isen attempted to acquire a manual key for his dorm, so that he would be able to enter on Shabbat, when observant Jews do not use electricity—including card-swipe locks. “I received a very offensive email from the Office of Pluralism and Leadership telling me to either seek an exception from that Jewish law from my rabbi, wait outside indefinitely [for another student to swipe him in], or move off-campus,” Isen recalled. He only got the key after a lengthy battle with college officials. Other schools like Harvard and Yale, by contrast, distribute manual keys to all Sabbath-observant students each year as a manner of course.
Isen also pointed out that Dartmouth “doesn’t have kosher food that is acceptable by Orthodox standards,” the only Ivy League school where this is the case. A petition to change this now has over 600 signatures.
For Isen, the rescheduled classes on Shabbat are apiece with Dartmouth’s general tendency to dismiss the concerns of its observant Jewish students. “I don’t think it was anything malicious,” he said. “I think nobody was thinking about it, and it’s kind of upsetting.”