For the first time ever, the University of Maryland, College Park hosted an alternative graduation ceremony this Sunday (May 21) to accommodate 22 observant Jewish students who were unable to attend their Saturday graduation because it took place on the Jewish Sabbath.
While the main campus-wide ceremony was held on Sunday, 19 of 34 schools’ commencement ceremonies were held on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. When the graduation schedule was announced in March, Shabbat-observant Jewish students expressed significant disappointment at feeling their considerations were not taken into account.
In order to alleviate the situation, Rabbi Eli Backman, director of UMD Chabad, and Rabbi Ari Israel, director of Hillel, requested the administration hold an alternative ceremony on Sunday. The college was only too happy to assist.
And so, at 5pm on Sunday afternoon, the 22 graduating students marched into the atrium in the Stamp Student Union building to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” as their proud families cheered them on.
Director of Hillel Rabbi Ari Israel delivered the opening remarks, urging the graduating class to give back. “We don’t live in a vacuum, rather we are part of society,” said Rabbi Israel. “People invested in us and gave us the tools we have, now each of you must seek out others to invest in.”
Mr. Paul Hamburger, a senior partner in the international law firm Proskauer Rose LLP and a member of Chabad on Campus international advisory board, delivered the commencement speech. He relayed an account he’d heard first-hand from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about how, together with Justice Breyer, she had lobbied then-Chief Justice Rehnquist to postpone the 2003 opening court session so as not to conflict with Yom Kippur.
Hamburger concluded his remarks by saying, “This graduation ceremony is separate from and still a part of the University of Maryland graduation exercises. It is a testament to how you can find a balance between your Jewish identity and your integration into the world at large.”
Each student was called up by name and received their diploma from William Cohen, associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies, who represented the university.
Rabbi Eli Backman closed the ceremony by asking the students to draw lessons and strength from this event. “As you progress in life, remember how you clung steadfast to your Jewish principles, and you were able to graduate without compromising your beliefs. There will be moments ahead which challenge you, but remember that you can remain true to both your profession and your faith.”
For Rebecca Grossman, a religious student and senior electrical engineering major, the ceremony was not just about recognizing the graduates’ hard work toward their degrees. It was a recognition of the values and priorities of the students. She gave special thanks to the university for showing “their unwavering support and commitment to the success of the Jewish students on campus.”
Rebecca, who helped organize the event, said there was something very special about having a celebration specifically with other observant students. “These are students I have been very close friends with for the last four years. I have taken classes with many of them. But more importantly, I have lived, eaten, learned, and observed Shabbat and holidays with them. The bond of the Jewish community at Maryland is incredibly strong and it was so special to stand next to these people as college graduates.”