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May 24, 2017 2:13 pm

Shabbat-Observing Students Convince University of Maryland to Hold Special Sunday Graduation Ceremony

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Graduates at the University of Maryland-College Park special ceremony for Shabbat observers. Photo: Courtesy of Chabad on Campus.

The University of Maryland-College Park (UMD) held its first-ever special graduation ceremony for Shabbat-observers this past Sunday, in what the student behind the initiative called a “very special” program.

The ceremony was attended by 22 students and over 100 family and friends, graduate Rebecca Grossman told The Algemeiner on Wednesday, who added that it was especially meaningful to celebrate commencement with the Jewish campus community she had grown so close to over the last four years.

Grossman first began organizing the alternative ceremony when she realized that although the main commencement exercises was scheduled for Sunday, 19 of the 34 departmental diploma presentation programs were to be held on Saturday, including that of her own engineering college.

“It’s very nice to sit there for three hours for main commencement and listen to speakers, but we also wanted to have that more intimate experience, with the core group that we had studied with and gone through all of college with,” Grossman said.

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She approached the UMD Hillel director, Rabbi Ari Israel, about making alternative arrangements, and, together with Hillel’s Allison Buchman, they compiled a list of Shabbat-observant students interested in participating in such an event and brought the request to the administration.

Grossman said the university “was really willing to work with us…and made an effort to make sure this was a recognized and official program,” including paying for a room in the student union building to hold the ceremony and sending William Cohen, associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies, to represent UMD and hand out the diplomas.

Hillel’s Israel delivered the opening remarks and Rabbi Eli Backman, director of UMD Chabad, closed the ceremony.

Paul Hamburger, a senior partner at Proskauer Rose LLP and a member of the international advisory board of Chabad on Campus, delivered the commencement speech.

“This graduation ceremony is separate from and still a part of the University of Maryland graduation exercises,” Hamburger said. “It is a testament to how you can find a balance between your Jewish identity and your integration into the world at large.”

Grossman called the program “a beta test” that she hopes will become the “default option” when commencement programs are scheduled for days that conflict with Jewish observance.

“A part of me feels that, yes, in a perfect world they wouldn’t schedule any commencement events for Saturday, and this scheduling conflict may be a reflection of the fact that the university just isn’t aware of this large, established Jewish community on campus,” Grossman said. “But, I understand why they won’t change their arrangements to accommodate 50 or 100 students out of thousands, so as long as they are willing to work with us on this, I’m fine with that.”

She said that next year all of the graduation exercises are set to take place over the three-day holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost), but she is confident Hillel, Chabad and the observant students will figure out a way to recognize graduation in an appropriate manner.

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