(Dec. 1997) Lessons from Yale for the Public Schools

As of this writing, the "Yale Four" - the four Orthodox Yale students who are refusing to live in coed dormitories - are pressing ahead with their lawsuit against the university. Yale undermined its own case when it allowed the students to live off-campus if they would pay the $7,000 dormitory fee. Otherwise, Yale has a strong defense. As a reasonable compromise, Yale could offer to set aside at least one dormitory in which overnight guests of either sex would be prohibited and in which single-sex bathrooms and shower areas would be strictly enforced. I suspect that more than just Orthodox Jewish students would appreciate such regulations.

Yale - like other former bastions of the haute anti-Semitism in the Ivy League - has come a long way in accommodating the needs of religious Jewish students and other minorities. Yale respects the dietary and Sabbath requirements of all Jewish students. Why? Not simply because of any civil rights statutes or because of enlightened attitudes on the part of the university administration, but because also of the seriousness and consistency of the religious practices of Orthodox and some Conservative students. Yale, among other institutions, has been more than willing to recognize the religious rights of Jewish students because of the willingness of students and employees to exercise those rights.

In contrast, Jewish families are apparently too quick to surrender their religious rights with respect to primary and secondary public and private schools. Witness the virtual lack of children attending morning services during Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah - holy days as important as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shabbat. The choice of Jewish parents to violate the holy days by sending their children to school, however, is understandable. Parents have informed me that field trips, quizzes and even formal examinations were conducted during the Jewish holidays. Under such pressure in our secular and competitive environment, who can blame children and parents from choosing school over shul?

And yet, our failure to practice our Jewish religious obligations has discouraged school districts from becoming more aware and sensitive to the rights of observant Jews. Jews are a small minority in central Connecticut and there is no state prohibition against teaching new material on religious holidays, nor should there be. But while Jewish students should not have to miss field trips or examinations, I cannot completely blame teachers and school administrators for not appreciating the importance of Jewish holidays. After all, if the majority of Jewish families do not treat the holidays as important, why should the schools? And if Jews are going to choose school over shul, why should schools alter their schedules?

We can learn from the Yale students. No, not the "Yale Four," but rather, from the mainstream of observant students and faculty who fit into the life of Yale without discarding Jewish holy days. My own alma mater, a secular college, had a policy of not considering any religious holidays in formulating the academic calendar. I considered that fair, since all religions were treated equally. My professors were encouraged to accommodate individual needs. For the most part, they did. For example, one tape recorded his lectures. Another supplied notes. No one conducted examinations on religious holidays. I wonder what would happen if more Jewish families were to chose shul over school? I suspect that they would gain more respect, credibility and consideration from their non-Jewish teachers and peers. Moreover, Jewish students would gain greater self-respect and respect for their own religion.

Hanukah celebrates the struggle for self-respect and for religious freedom more than 2,000 years ago. The history and legends of Hanukah are well-known to most readers. What may be less known to many is that the Maccabees, the heroes of Hanukah, were neither fanatics nor the makers of unreasonable demands. Rather, they represented the mainstream of Jewish life. Their middle-of -the-road, "Conservative" observance of basic Jewish values, laws and holy days enabled Judaism to survive the threats of the Greco-Syrians and Jewish collaborators. Today, when we American Jews are under no such threats, we need to encourage our children - and ourselves - to exercise our rights as observant Jews and to set examples for our non-Jewish neighbors, teachers and peers.

I welcome your reactions to this article. I appreciate the dilemmas and the delicate balancing acts that many Jewish families face in navigating between the secular and Jewish worlds. I want to learn from your experiences.

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