The Humanist Dilemma: Should a Dorm Cut Electricity to Accommodate an Observant Jewish Student?

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Less Power to Her: I’m a freshman attending a very diverse, private, non-denominational college. I share a dorm room with two others, all of us Jewish to varying degrees (me just culturally). One of my roommates is so observant she eats vegan to keep kosher in the cafeteria. She is asking the administration to dismantle the electronic badges used to unlock the doors (they’re also used to pay for the cafeteria, printing, and many other services on campus) during the High Holy Days because “work” on holidays is against Orthodox rules. (As are myriad other things like cells phones, computers, elevators where you push the buttons, driving, etc.).

I was raised in a pretty observant family, and I think this is just totally unreasonable. To accommodate her would inconvenience our entire dorm and perhaps the whole school. It would also compromise our security since the doors would have to be left unlocked for several days.

She lives too far away to travel home for the holidays, and we will have classes as usual (I don’t know if she plans to attend). I doubt that the administration will comply with her request, but if they do, I’d be inclined to protest, except I don’t want to create a rift with my roomie whom I otherwise like well enough.

What do you think?

–Maybe She Picked the Wrong College


Dear College,

I’m with you, and I’d be appalled if your college administration is not as well. As someone who’s also from a pretty observant family that associates with extremely observant people, I question why the electronic doors bother her for these particular holidays but are no problem on the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday every single week. During that time, does she stay in the room for twenty-four hours (and perhaps use a chamber pot, since I doubt a freshman dorm room has its own bathroom), or does she go away every weekend? If she uses the electronic key on Saturdays, she’s apparently ok with ignoring the rules in one case while attempting to obey them (and force them on others, including non-Jews) in another case.

As you say, maybe she picked the wrong college. If observing her religion is that important to her, there are other schools, or special-interest dorms within large schools, where her customs would be observed. I wonder why she didn’t choose one of them.

I admit I’m not as sympathetic or PC as perhaps I should be about such things. I get enraged when public pools institute men-only and women-only hours for religions that don’t allow mixed swimming. I have a problem when people require workplace accommodations for worship that create burdens on their colleagues and employers. When new religious holidays are declared, shutting down public schools and government services, I argue that instead of adding new ones, it would be better to cut old ones (do we really need Good Friday off?).

Let me know what happens. In the unlikely case that your school grants her request, I would like to help you find organizations that could challenge that decision, possibly without identifying you. But I hope they, like me, will rule that it’s her responsibility to find a work-around, whether that involves asking a local synagogue to provide her a place to stay for the holidays, asking other people to open doors for her (that’s what Shabbos goys are for), or just adding one more sin to atone for on Yom Kippur.