Andrew Renneisen | Photo EditorOn the Hill
Time for faith: One year later, students are still adjusting to revised religious observance policy
Jacob Levy would have to miss two classes to get home in time to eat, and then promptly drive back to school that night after a full day of Yom Kippur fasting in order to prevent missing any more classes.
Levy, a senior entrepreneurship and emerging enterprise and marketing major, said he would not be traveling home for Yom Kippur this year because of this.
“It’s kind of like saying you can’t spend Christmas with your family,” he said. “I mean it’s not bad that you have to spend it with your friends, but it’s a family thing.”
One year ago, Syracuse University changed its religious observance policy, allowing students to indicate their religion and which holidays they planned to celebrate on MySlice.
In the past, the university had one non-instructional day for each of the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But Good Friday, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Fitr are no longer university-wide holidays, said Tiffany Steinwert, dean of Hendricks Chapel.
Last year, several of the Jewish holidays overlapped with weekends and thus did not conflict with classes. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, both of which took place this week, therefore mark the first time many Jewish students used the system, said Brian Small, director of programming and student engagement and interim acting director for the Winnick Hillel Center.
Steinwert said she considers the year-old policy a success. The policy has created better communication between students and professors, encouraged students to take off for an increased variety of holidays and established an official protocol for students seeking to take days off to observe religious traditions, she said.
Since the policy has been implemented, requests have increased each year. In fall 2011, the university received 2,504 religious observance requests from 660 students. In fall 2012, 745 students submitted 3,505 religious observance, said Andria Staniec, associate provost for academic affairs, in an email.
University officials had discussed changing the policy for a long time, Steinwert said, and finally decided to change its policy to be similar to that of other universities.
“Most universities today do not have non-instructional holidays for religious traditions for the simple fact that universities are trying to be as inclusive as possible,” she said.
In the most recent student census regarding religious affiliation, officials discovered that 35 different religions are represented at SU, Steinwert said. Though students of any faith have always been able to request time off for religious observance, only three religions were automatically given days off, she said.
“By prioritizing three holidays and three traditions, we were marginalizing students who were not part of that,” she said. “In order to be most inclusive, you want to create a policy that will give all students equal standing.”
This year, the policy has not changed in any way, though the university has begun using new software to identify the religions and holidays students have registered for. During the first year, the university discovered that students spelled holiday names differently. This made it difficult for the software program to detect that a holiday with two different spellings was the same holiday. New software has been put in use to fix this issue, Steinwert said.
Both Staniec and Steinwert said the change in policy has received positive feedback. The change has been particularly well received by students whose religions have several holidays, such as Jewish students who celebrate several holidays during the fall semester, Steinwert said.
But some students are hesitant to take time off for religious celebrations because they fear they will fall too far behind in classes.
In order to be most inclusive, you want to create a policy that will give all students equal standing.
Tiffany Steinwert, Dean of Hendricks Chapel
Jon Zarem, a junior psychology and religion major, said he preferred the university’s old system, where students were given the day off for their holidays.
Twenty minutes into his biology class on Rosh Hashanah last week, he was already glad he hadn’t skipped class. He elected not to skip class for observance because he didn’t want to miss instructional time, and in those twenty minutes two important topics had already been covered.
Though students are not penalized academically for missing class, Zarem said he feels students are at a disadvantage because classes go on without them and content is missed.
“The university doesn’t stop and they don’t care,” he said.
In Zarem’s opinion, the new system is very flawed. He said he thinks the university needs to look at the issue from a different perspective, but that he doubts they will any time soon.
But Staniec said there is a way around this problem.
“There is an option within the policy for students to complete work prior to the absence for their faith tradition observance,” she said.
Levy, the senior entrepreneurship and emerging enterprise and marketing major, additionally said he disliked that registration on Myslice closes after two weeks, because he feels many students are unaware of the policy and likely miss the deadline. Since he was abroad during the change in policy last year, Levy was unaware of how to register and just happened to stumble upon it on MySlice.
Students are informed of how to register for religious observances through various channels, including MySlice notifications, freshman registration information, chaplaincies and religious groups, orientations held by Steinwert at Hendricks Chapel and in course syllabi. The university tries to get this information out to students in at least seven different ways, Steinwert said.
Hillel president Hannah Miller feels the pros of the new policy outweigh any cons.
“The fall, we always joke, is just a really crazy busy Jewish time because we have six or seven days of Jewish holidays,” said Miller, a junior advertising major. “Instead of just granting us one, we can take off as many days as we want to.”
Miller said Hillel works to publicize the policy through social media outlets and by making verbal announcements to increase student awareness of the policy.
This year, Small said, more students are making use of the religious observance policy and are also better understanding the policy. He said he has received fewer phone calls asking how the policy works.
Students were divided when it came to missing class to observe holidays, Small said.
Some students take off classes and worry about the consequences later, but others, he said, are concerned about falling behind.
Said Small: “I think that eventually they’ll all figure out that the more of them that take the holiday off, the more likely that classes will be cancelled because the Jewish student community is so significant here at Syracuse University.”
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