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Religious students juggle work, class and holiday celebration

Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays in the Muslim faith, was early September this year. The holiday honors sacrifice, adding an element of irony to the fact that Ghada Baqbouq ’19 had to sacrifice a night of sleep on Sunday in order to keep up with the work she could not do over the weekend. Baqbouq started her work mid-day Sunday and finished by 6 a.m. Monday morning. 

“It was so much work,” Baqbouq said. “I wish we had a way not to have this much work on that weekend.”

This situation is familiar to those at Kenyon who celebrate holidays other than Christmas — holidays for which the College does not cancel class or work. These students and faculty members must navigate staying afloat academically and attending work while celebrating holy holidays.

Eva Warren ’19, an observant Episcopalian, said she struggles with this balancing act during Easter. “Easter’s a time of celebration and joy, and this past year, with the timing, it was around when I was having a bunch of exams and I had this immense guilt over whether to prioritize my schoolwork or prioritize this religious celebration,” Warren said.

Religious observance counts as an excused absence, according to an addendum to College attendance policy that went into effect last January. As long as students warn their professors at the beginning of the semester, they are allowed to miss class. However, they must still make up the work.

All but one student interviewed for this article said they would not miss class for a religious celebration for fear of falling behind. “I’m going to be thinking about the work [if I miss class],” Yara Awwad ’20 said.

Jewish Chaplain and Director of Hillel Marc Bragin, who helped write the policy, said it is meant to accommodate students of all faiths.

“It doesn’t give you a free ride just to not turn in something,” Bragin said. “I think you have to prioritize what’s important to you. If observing or attending services takes precedent over going to class, if that belief is important to you and you feel that you should be in services and not in class, then it’s a choice you make.”

In past years, Professor of Mathematics Noah Aydin has canceled class on Eid so he could celebrate in Columbus. This year, he did not feel the need because, given the growing Muslim population on campus, there were enough students to host Eid prayer in the morning. (Eid typically begins with a morning community prayer.)

Aydin also pointed to the Eid dinner, a community meal hosted by the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and Middle East Student Association (MESA), as an example of what the College does right when it comes to Eid celebration.

“MSA did get support for the Eid dinner from Kenyon and we really appreciate it,” Aydin said.

Three hundred people attended the meal this year. Funding came from the MSA and MESA budgets, as well as the Kenyon Interfaith Partnership (KIP). “At the beginning, it didn’t feel like Eid at all, but when we did the dinner and everyone was there for us, that felt really good,” Awwad said. “I felt that we have a community — not just a Muslim community, but we have a Kenyon community, which is really nice.”

Rosh Hashana, one of the Jewish High Holidays (a series of holidays that the Jewish faith celebrates throughout September and October), begins Wednesday, Sept. 20 at sundown and ends sundown Friday, Sept. 22. A Sept. 13 email from Associate Provost Jeffrey Bowman sent to the faculty, obtained by the Collegian, read: “Please be aware that Jewish holidays are upcoming and some of your students may contact you about class conflicts with religious celebrations.” The email includes the dates and times of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

There was no equivalent email sent about Eid this year.

“We never get a notice like this from administration about Muslim holidays,” Aydin said in an email to the Collegian. “[I] Hope there will be more recognition of major holidays of other faith traditions, including Muslims.”

Provost Bowman said this email was not intended to imply holidays of other faith communities were any less important. 

“I am sorry if it was taken this way,” Bowman wrote in an email to the Collegian. “The provost’s office encourages faculty to accommodate students observing similarly important holidays in other faiths.” He cited the attendance policy on religious observance as an example of this.

“I will work to ensure that future communications on this subject might better reflect the vibrant and diverse spiritual lives of our students and the College’s commitment to equity and inclusion,” Bowman wrote.

Aydin believes there is a disparity between support for Jewish and Muslim holidays on campus because, while Jewish students are supported by the existence of Hillel House and Bragin, a full-time staff member dedicated to the Jewish community, Muslim students do not have an equivalent.

“We don’t have [a] space, we don’t have a person dedicated to organize these things,” Aydin said. “It is students trying to organize events for Muslim holidays. We definitely don’t have many resources to organize or support Muslim life on campus. That is the main difference.”

Bragin believes it the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life can play a central role in addressing these concerns. “If there are ways that we can better support our Muslim students, I’m happy to figure out how to do that,” Bragin said.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down, will land during the spring for the next few years. It has been over the summer for the past seven years, but it changes annually. It will start May 15 and end June 14. 

“For the next years when Ramadan comes, it will be during finals week and also during senior week and graduation, so I would hope that there are also accommodations for families that are coming,” Baqbouq said. “It would be great if there was some food before sunrise, but maybe this is something where it’s our responsibility. because I understand how hard it would be to ask people to come at 3 a.m. I understand how we will have to share the responsibility on this one.”

Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum is News Editor of the Collegian.

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