Yale News

Several Orthodox Jewish alumni have authored a letter of protest at the University’s plans to hold makeup commencement ceremonies for the class of 2020, as well as the class of 2021 for some schools, on a Saturday, which is a Jewish day of rest. 

The makeup Commencement ceremonies, scheduled for May 14, 2022, fall on Shabbat, a Jewish day of observance. The University scheduled the ceremonies without first notifying the Jewish graduates or consulting any Jewish representatives, according to the students. Observant graduates found out about this decision in the general announcement regarding the ceremony in early November, and some soon authored a letter in protest to the University. 

“We are disappointed but not surprised that Yale scheduled the make-up commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021 on Shabbat, since there have been similar situations in the past,” Uri Cohen, Executive Director of Slifka Center and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Jewish Chaplain at Yale, wrote in a joint email to the News. 

Emmett Gilles LAW ’20, an observant Jew set to celebrate his Commencement ceremony on the 2022 makeup date, expressed frustration at the University’s scheduling decision. He, alongside a cohort of observant Jewish alumni, wrote a letter to Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, Yale’s Secretary and Vice President for University Life, emphasizing the “total lack of communication” between the University and the Jewish community. The letter had 16 signatories, 11 of whom are recent law school graduates directly affected by the Commencement schedule, and five of whom are past alumni. An additional brief letter of support was also included that contained 23 signatures from current and past law students.

Gilles explained that the scheduling of the Commencement ceremony poses a problem as Shabbat is a day of rest, and although practices vary widely, observers generally refrain from using electronics, including transportation, cell phones and photographs. Gilles said that this unplugged day “can’t happen if you’re proceeding down the aisle to commence.”

“[The Commencement scheduling poses] two categories of problems: opportunity cost and actual conflict,” Gilles said. “First, if you are occupied with doing something else important that is time sensitive, like graduation, then you can’t give that same kind of attention, focus and time to observing Shabbat. Second, because observing Shabbat involves a fundamental change in both our outward behavior and the inner dimension of being fully present in our most important relationships, graduation ceremonies pose direct conflicts with observance itself.”

Goff-Crews replied to the alumni email by assuring them that there will be a Friday afternoon reception the day before the ceremony where observant alumni and their families can be present. Details included graduates wearing their regalia, Shabbat services, celebratory kosher meals and a professional photographer. The University is also seeking rabbinical guidance on all arrangements, Goff-Crews wrote. 

However her response email included no reasoning as to why the community was not notified before the decision was made, or why the decision was made in the first place. 

In an email to the News, Goff-Crews noted that because of the “other calendar demands due to the pandemic,” which include Commencement ceremonies for the class of 2022 the following weekend and then three consecutive reunion weekends in June, the makeup ceremony ended up being scheduled for May 14, 2022. Goff-Crews did not respond to the News’ request for comment on why Commencement was scheduled on the Saturday of that weekend, rather than Friday or Sunday.

“We understand that this schedule presents a problem for our Orthodox alumni and their families,” said Goff-Crews. “We are working with Rabbi Rubenstein and Rabbi Ozar to ensure the most positive experience possible.” 

Gilles, Cohen and Rubenstein mentioned that this year was not the first time that a Commencement event fell on a Jewish day of rest. In 2018, the Commencement ceremony took place on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. 

Jewish alumni in 2018 reached out to administrators, just as they are doing now, “to express concerns over the substantial burdens this scheduling decision placed in the way of holiday observance for graduating students and their families,” noted the alumni letter to Goff-Crews.

Both in 2018 and now, there lies an inherent “logistical nightmare” said Gilles, one that “no one wants to untangle.” 

Graduating students and their families who practice this mode of observance are forced to choose between honoring their religious commitments and participating in Yale’s celebrations of their accomplishments,” Cohen and Rubenstein added.

But Gilles emphasized that “he holds no malice towards anyone” and acknowledges that Yale has made “considerable efforts” to accommodate Jewish life throughout its campus.

However, in this specific instance, he said, he and fellow graduates have been frustrated with the lack of communication. He pointed specifically to the fact that he and fellow alumni have still received no explanation for this decision on the University’s part, “other than the general challenge posed by pandemic conditions,” Gilles said.

Rubenstein also pointed to the lack of transparency as an issue.

“In situations like this, my concern is not about being ‘seen,’ rather about what I can ‘see’: the decision-making processes regarding commencement and other events that can and do lead to these situations,” Rubenstein wrote.

Cohen also said that he “appreciates how extremely complicated calendaring is on Yale’s scale,” but simultaneously, “the ongoing recurrence of these issues shows that there remains more work to be done here.”

The date for the makeup ceremony is not set to change, but the observant Jewish community at Yale still hopes to bring awareness to the issue nonetheless.

“The goal of this effort is simply to draw necessary attention to an understudied problem to make this great community even better,” Gilles said.

In addition to the makeup Commencement ceremonies, Yale plans to hold an in-person Commencement ceremony for Yale College graduates on May 22. 

Paloma Vigil is the Arts Editor for the Yale Daily News. She previously served as a DEI co-chair and staff reporter for the University and Sports desks. Past coverage includes religious life, Yale College Council, sailing and gymnastics. Originally from Miami, she is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Psychology and Political Science.