When Wharton senior Gabe Low thinks about commencement, he feels disappointment. For Low, who took two gap years to serve in the Israeli Army, the journey to commencement has been an unconventional one — six years in the making. But because commencement this year is scheduled on Shavuot, a Jewish holiday, Low and other Orthodox Jewish students must grapple with whether or not to attend.
"It's a shame because it's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to graduate," Low said. "And now, I've been waiting for this graduation for six years, and it's not the outcome that I hoped for or expected."
Penn’s decision to hold commencement on May 17, which coincides with Shavuot, caused outcry among observant Jewish students, culminating in both a guest column College senior Yoni Gutenmacher authored in The Daily Pennsylvanian and a petition to move the ceremony. The petition, which was created last week, has garnered more than 1,300 signatures.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy did not respond to a request for comment about whether the University is aware of the petition and if it is considering moving the date of commencement.
More than 45 years ago, Penn moved the 1975 commencement ceremony from its original date to accommodate Jewish students and families that celebrated Shavuot. But this year, Gutenmacher and other Orthodox Jewish students are facing a different outcome: Penn has not responded to student pleas for accommodation.
“Years later, when Penn has become a much more progressive institution, it's weird that their actions aren’t following suit,” Gutenmacher said.
Student leaders in the Jewish community, including Gutenmacher, December 2020 Wharton graduate Simcha Stadlan, and College and Wharton senior and 2021 Class Board President Lizzie Youshaei, also sent an email on March 18 asking Penn administrators to reconsider moving commencement and have not received a response.
Observant Jewish seniors are now forced to make a difficult choice of whether to risk infringing on their religious beliefs to attend the event. Shavuot, a two-day holiday that begins on May 16, typically entails going to religious services and forgoing the use of technology. As a result, Orthodox students who do attend graduation cannot take photos, call their family members, or go out with friends to restaurants after the ceremony.
“I am forced to choose between attending a holiday that is really important to me that Jews have practiced for thousands of years, and attending the one commencement I have in my life that’s only been on the calendar for three years,” Gutenmacher said.
This decision has been years in the making: Orthodox students learned of the religious conflict when the 2020-2021 academic calendar was released three years ago. Aware of the logistical issues that moving commencement would cause — particularly because Penn had planned four separate ceremonies for each college — some students felt the date was set in stone. But COVID-19 changed all of that, Stadlan, said, adding that Penn could have adjusted the date as it altered its plans for the ceremony amid the pandemic.
“It’s one thing that Penn didn’t consider us when they first made the date, but when they had a second chance to remedy that, they again disappointed,” Stadlan, who graduated in December 2020 and will participate in the upcoming commencement ceremony, said.
Penn announced on March 9 that, due to the pandemic, all seniors will attend a single in-person commencement ceremony at Franklin Field. Guests are not permitted, and the event will be livestreamed for family members to watch remotely.
“If the graduation was on Sunday — one day before — it would make a world of a difference because not only would we be able to take pictures, but also our families would be able to watch,” Low said.
But above all, students, like College junior Elyakim Suissa, say they are surprised by Penn's unwillingness to consider moving the date of commencement. At a university with such a large Jewish population — 17% of Penn's undergraduate population is Jewish — the decision to hold commencement on Shavuot seems “out of character.”
“It’s just baffling,” Suissa said. He speculates that Penn’s continued silence about this year’s commencement reflects the administration’s desire to “sweep concerns under the rug” until it is too late to change the date.
The decision to hold commencement during Shavuot also sparked outrage among Penn alumni, who voiced their frustrations on the petition website. Carole Lerman, a 1975 Nursing graduate, argued that commencement would never have been scheduled on a comparable Christian holiday like Easter or Good Friday.
“That’s it for my donations,” Lerman wrote.
Penn’s silence on the issue stands in contrast to last year, when administrators met with Orthodox students at the Office of the Chaplain to discuss religious accommodations for the ceremony. Now, leaders in the Jewish community have expressed frustration that they cannot even get a simple reply to their email.
Faced with silence from the University about this year’s commencement, many Orthodox students, like College senior Daniel Shenwick, say they are undecided about their graduation plans.
“My family definitely won't be able to watch the livestream. At this point, I am not exactly certain what I will do; it's going to depend on what the setup looks like for commencement,” he said.
Penn’s decision to hold commencement during a religious holiday is just one aspect of a larger pattern of challenges that Orthodox students face. From having exams scheduled during religious holidays to forgoing the use of technology — including PennCard usage and PennOpen Pass daily COVID-19 symptom checks — on Shabbat, observant Jewish students face unique obstacles throughout their college experience.
“These types of religious observances have always given me trade-offs, so when it came to Penn’s graduation, which is a once-in-a-lifetime celebration and something that I am excited to participate in and I know my friends are too, I really didn’t want to have to be part of this trade-off equation,” Stadlan said.
In a year where Penn has gone to great lengths to promote inclusivity within its student body, Youshaei said that she was disappointed with the University for putting her Jewish peers in this avoidable position.
“I really believe that Penn is a campus that celebrates diversity, and I was really angered to see that Shavuot was on graduation because it just felt like it went against so much of what Penn claims that it upholds as a University in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Youshaei said.
Low added that he hopes Penn administrators will respond to the petition, the students' email, and students’ concerns rather than remain silent in the face of mounting criticism.
“Moving graduation would be an extremely positive reflection on the University, to show that it cares about all students and trying to be as equitable as possible,” Low said.
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