Sukkot

Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel runs the Chabad at the University with his family.

Students in religious minorities now have a go-to resource for requesting exemptions for major spiritual observances.

In September, the Office of Diversity and Equity launched a website that allows students to submit time-off requests from classes that fall during mandated religious observances. Though not official KU policy, the website’s guidelines encourage students to put in requests 20 days before the semester starts.

Saida Bonifield, director of strategic initiatives, policies and special programs at the Office of Diversity and Equity, said the office was working on this project with students and faculty for about a year.

“Students have asked if there’s an appropriate way that they can ask for time off for a religious observance, so we wanted to make sure that they felt welcome to do so,” Bonifield said.

Instructors also asked for guidance regarding religious holidays when planning their syllabi, Bonifield said, to avoid giving exams during dates of importance for religious minorities. The webpage features an extensive drop-down list of religious dates that can be navigated by time period or religion.

“That’s actually why we started this website, or this resource, was to have some sort of knowledge base for instructors to look at and understand different religious observances a little bit better,” Bonifield said.

Zoya Khan, president of the Muslim Student Association and junior from Overland Park, said she was in talks with Bonifield about bringing attention to this issue.

“This is a huge step, I think, for the university and for a lot of religious minorities here,” Khan said.

Being denied time off is not the problem, Khan said. Rather, students don’t know they can request days off, or feel deterred from asking for fear of repercussions.

“These days don’t come very often,” Khan said. “There are only two really big holidays in Islam, which are the two Eids, but it’s been difficult for Muslim students to even have like two days off, or to feel like they can even ask to have two days off.”

Students from other religious minorities could feel too intimidated to personally request a class exemption. Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel, who leads Chabad at the University, said students finally have a streamlined process for these requests.

“Overall, the University is very accommodating,” said Tiechtel. “The challenge is it isn’t always easy. It takes a certain sense of courage. You have to go approach the professor and schedule a meeting, and some people don’t want to start negotiating with professors because [they think], ‘How will that impact my grade?’”

Tiechtel said that with this new resource, students will feel that prioritizing a religious observance is not “abnormal or strange,” but accepted. Seeing other religions listed, Tiechtel said, will put students at ease in knowing they are not the only ones.

Religious celebrations are tied as much to identity as to religion, Tiechtel said, and nonreligious students should have the ability to express that part of themselves just as much as religious students.

“If I’m a Jew, I need to celebrate the Jewish New Year. You know, if I’m a Christian, I need to celebrate Christmas. If I’m a Muslim, I need to celebrate Ramadan,” Tiechtel said. “Everyone has the key holidays that are so important to their sense of self and identity, so it’s so important for students to recognize that even while you’re a college student, you can still continue to do so.”

Angela Rathmel, advisor for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and a faculty senator, said these efforts are a benefit to students not following the western Christian calendar.

“The unique thing about Pascha is that it doesn’t always land on the same day as western Easter. So that’s an important reason why those allowances are there,” said Rathmel.

Bonifield said her office is working toward making an official University policy surrounding religious holidays in the next year, and that the website is a work in progress.

The website is not perfect, she said, and anonymous emails about how to improve the website are welcome.

“I’m just hoping that this is a process,” said Bonifield. “We continue to do this work, we continue to be better, we create policies that are more inclusive so the climate at KU is moved to [be] more inclusive.”

— Edited by Danya Issawi 

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