“More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” These poignant words were penned by Asher Ginsberg, a 19th-century Zionist thinker, more commonly known by his nom de plume, Ahad Ha’am (one of the people).
For 25 hours each week, observant Jews withdraw from the chaos of the wider world. We do not use our phones, our computers, our iPads, our televisions. Our emails go unchecked. Our texts unanswered. We do not make calls, turn on lights, cook food, or get in the car. If we use the elevator, someone else has pressed the button. We focus on family, food, and faith.
Growing up, I would often count down the hours until Shabbos ended. I couldn’t wait to turn on my phone, gossip with my friends, or watch an episode of TV. As an adult, Shabbos is a haven. I thank God for it every single day. It’s the one time a week I get to really catch my breath.
No matter how pressing my work may be, it simply has to wait. No matter how desperately I want to finish the round of Candy Crush I’m stuck on, I need to practice self-control. No matter how eager I am to place that grocery order before I forget, or to write down an idea that strikes me, I can’t. I spend the day with my God, my husband, my daughter, and very often my parents and siblings. There’s a structure and a predictable pattern. And it’s in that relative lack of choice that I actually find myself feeling the most free.
Americans are bombarded by choice in every moment of every day. We have limitless options to choose from when it comes to what we want to wear, what we want to eat, what we want to do, what sources of information we want to read. Today, there are even unlimited choices when it comes to who we want to be. It seems, unfortunately, that we are growing increasingly restricted in what we can say, and how we can practice our respective religions. The latest jaw-dropping example of the assault on religion comes, sadly, from my beloved alma mater, Barnard.
As a Barnard student, I spent my 3 years on campus in literary heaven. An English major, I immersed myself in the great works, and for the first time in my life, was proud to be a nerd. I turned 21 in Columbia’s Butler Library. Jonny, a friend, snuck in a bottle of vodka and a slice of cake. Then, at 12:30 a.m., we all went back to writing our respective papers.
As a proud Zionist, there were definitely moments on campus when I felt less than appreciated by some of my hyper-progressive peers. But when it came to the college itself, I rarely, if ever, felt that my Jewish identity counted against me. Professors were always understanding if I had to miss class in September for the Jewish holidays and there was kosher food readily available in most of the dining halls.
So I was appalled, and quite surprised when earlier today I received a message from a fellow Orthodox Jew, and a fellow alum. She was outraged — and for good reason. It turns out that a Barnard bureaucrat had decided that she was uniquely empowered to decide how and when Jews on campus could freely practice their religion.
In an email sent to observant Jews on campus, Cynthia Yang, the deputy chief of staff to the college president, and the head of the college’s pandemic response team, described the new technology protocols for reporting COVID-19 symptoms and participating in contact tracing.
Then, it all went south. Quickly. “We recognize that how you have practiced religious traditions in the past may not align with the use of technology during the high holidays or the Sabbath, but this year it is paramount for the community’s health and safety that you abide by the Barnard pledge and follow the college’s policies and procedures.” (emphasis added.)
The idea a university bureaucrat — and not Rabbis or other Jewish leaders — would instruct Jewish students on how to square their practical obligations to the college with their religious beliefs, is deeply offensive.
That this bureaucrat would specifically imply that the religious practices of Jews on campus are all “in the past,” and that despite their beliefs, their convictions, their faith, they need to abide by a system set up by people who have not considered their circumstances at all, is simply unacceptable.
Barnard was a bastion of liberalism before the word woke entered the lexicon. Anyone who works there has sat through countless sessions on diversity and inclusion. So I have to wonder: other than checking the box to prove progressive bona fides, what exactly is the purpose of a seminar on diversity and inclusion? If something as basic as whether a recognized religion has the right to practice its beliefs is something lost on a senior administrator at a liberal arts college, we can only draw two conclusions.
Either diversity and inclusion efforts are not crafted with Jews in mind at all — despite our multi-generation history of enslavement, oppression, displacement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, our experience is bizarrely characterized as privileged by the vast majority of leftist caucus. Therefore, we don’t matter. At all. Or: diversity and inclusion trainings are meaningless attempts by cowed bureaucrats to signal that they and their institutions are just as woke as everybody else. That virtue signaling is a plea: please, inoculate us against cancellation. These choices are not mutually exclusive. As is often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
In Barnard’s case, the situation was rectified a short while after the offending email. Cynthia Yang wrote again, to apologize, to say her email was “written in haste” and that it “was not considerate in the way it should have been of each students’ ability to practice and observe their religion.”
Yang liaised with Yonah Hain, the campus Rabbi, (whose name she misspelled) to create a plan that would enable the university to obtain the information it needs, in real-time, without violating Jewish students’ rights to observe Shabbos. That kind of dialogue and engagement is precisely the thing that should have taken place before any email was sent out targeting religious Jews on campus.
Meantime, while the immediate crisis has been averted, the broader implications of Barnard’s vile position will not quickly be forgotten. Jews have kept Shabbos through 3,000 years of oppression. Through the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Arab lands. My grandmother found a way to have a Passover Seder (minus the accouterments) in the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. Jews blew the Shofar in Auschwitz.
But the message to us is clear: the people in power at the elite institutions in this country believe that it is their right to decide when and how we practice our faith. It is not.