Stony Brook University loves to boast about how diverse it is.
Wherever I turn, I am constantly reminded about the campus’ goal to fight discrimination. We have a “Plan for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity” that is responsible for creating a physical LGBTQ* Center on campus and inundates the campus with seminars and workshops about how diverse we are. Many of our educational programs focus directly on reversing histories of (mostly male) oppression, such as the Women in Science and Engineering program. My orientation was basically a social justice seminar, complete with lengthy speeches about microaggressions and gender identities. My first semester seminar likewise heavily focused on implicit bias and trying to create a “safe space” for all students.
But Stony Brook isn’t as tolerant as it depicts itself to be. How else can you explain the fact that we have no days off for important religious holidays?
This became apparent to me last Wednesday, Sept. 19, when the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was acknowledged. For those who are unfamiliar with the holiday, Yom Kippur is a day on which all members of the religion are expected to atone for their sins. This is accomplished through a day-long fast and attending services in the middle of the fast where we confess our sins, either privately or publicly, in temple. The fact that we don’t have a day off for such an important holiday is indicative of the flaws in Stony Brook’s plans for tolerance.
But something occurred this year that truly exposed the extent of the problem to me. According to the Office of the Provost, students can take off for religious holidays and will not be penalized for being absent, with the further instruction that teachers make sure “no examinations, papers, presentations, or other assignments [are due on] any of the major holidays.”
Despite these clear instructions, one of my teachers assigned homework Tuesday that was due Wednesday, the night of Yom Kippur, and another teacher announced that there would be a quiz the day after. Instead of reflecting on my sins and atoning for them, I was preoccupied with finishing the homework and studying for the quiz. I am certain my teachers were not being deliberately discriminatory; I think they were just unaware of the significance of the day and what it entails for one who observes.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Yom Kippur wasn’t promoted on campus. Last year, Students for Justice in Palestine called Hillel, a prominent Jewish collegiate organization, a terrorist group and asked for it to be banned. Aside from an angry letter from The Interfaith Center, the university took no action. There was also no email about Yom Kippur sent to all faculty and students on campus, which probably left many people ignorant of such an important day. Out of curiosity, I went online and researched important religious holidays in other religions to see if they received any more attention than Yom Kippur. What I found was extremely disheartening.
Do we receive a day off for Diwali and Maha Shivaratri, important Hindu holidays? No.
Do we receive a day off for Eid al-Adha and the beginning of Ramadan, two of the holiest Muslim days? No.
As a matter of fact, the only religious holiday school is closed for is Christmas, solely because it occurs during Winter Break.
I understand that the school can’t afford to shut down for the duration of every religious holiday, as that would be detrimental to students’ education. Nevertheless, it is extremely disrespectful not to take even a day off for students to observe their religions on the holiest days of their respective calendars.
The school could take one day off for each of the six holidays mentioned above and deduct the six days from our summer vacation, which stretches from the end of May to the end of August. Instead, the school suggests teachers not to assign anything on those days and remain ignorant of the fact that the teachers themselves may unintentionally disrespect those holidays by assigning work. After all, there is no ban on having homework due on those holidays, so there’s no incentive for teachers to actually acknowledge them.
Stony Brook cannot continue calling itself “tolerant” and “diverse” if it can’t support students in participating in their own religion. Stony Brook heavily promotes gender equality and racial equality, but when it comes to religion it turns a blind eye. Many religions have faced centuries of discrimination; the Jewish people were targeted and slaughtered by Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany, and Muslims constantly have to withstand being called terrorists. Shouldn’t religions receive the same amount of respect and attention that Stony Brook pays to other discriminated groups?