Saturday, March 10, 2012

New York Medical College, Now with a Jewish Affiliation and the Catholic Church Shows How to Do Religious Accommodation Right

Something the Current Parties in the Contraception Wars Could Learn From

Did anyone know that a college that is affiliated with one religious group can choose to become affiliated with a different religious group?  Apparently the answer to that question is yes, they can.  New York Medical College (who?) did just that recently.

Institutions of higher education switch religious affiliations, as New York Medical College did nine months ago, so rarely that there really is no playbook to follow. It has meant addressing countless wary questions as they arise, including where to install mezuzas in doorways — 108 so far — and where people may be allowed to carry a cup of coffee.

The why of this change is not entirely clear.  The College had had an affiliation with the Catholic Church.

In the late 1970s, facing financial trouble, the medical school agreed to be sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The college did not become a Catholic institution, like Notre Dame or Boston College, but a college “in the Catholic tradition,” operating with fewer church restrictions.

But the College has now become affiliated with Touro College (who?).  Touro is apparently a big deal where it operates.

Since it was founded by Bernard Lander, an Orthodox rabbi and a sociologist who served as president until his death in 2010, Touro has identified itself as a Jewish institution engaged with worldly problems. It has long had a mostly non-Jewish student body, with particular appeal to older students and immigrants.

In the past 15 years, Touro has opened a graduate school of business and three schools of osteopathic medicine, and it was a pioneer in online education, before selling that operation in 2007. Touro has been known for a bare-bones administration and for having low tuition costs for a private college — undergraduates pay about $25,000 a year in tuition, room and board.

And so after the change the College administrators faced questions like this.

an employee approached Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka in the cafeteria, voice raised and finger wagging, and demanded, “When you take over, will I be able to eat my ham sandwich here?”

Well the attitude of the new “owners” was to accommodate everyone. That was made easier by the fact that despite its Catholic affiliation, the College was already an accommodating institution.

Touro officials said on taking over that they were surprised to discover that there were no crucifixes to take down and few doctrinal limitations on curriculum to reverse. It already taught topics like contraceptive and fertility treatments that the church opposed. Dr. Kadish said that as far as he knew, the only area the school might embark on that it shunned during its Catholic affiliation was embryonic stem cell research.

 So there was this.

As for how Jewish to make things, officials played it by ear. Mezuzas, the little boxed Hebrew prayer scrolls mounted on door jambs, were installed at building entrances but not auditoriums or classrooms. Professors chose whether to have them outside their offices, and after the tradition was explained, some non-Jewish professors requested them.

And this

Students wondered if they would find the library locked on the Jewish Sabbath, but it remains open — no one staffs it, but the lights work on timers, and the Internet connections stay on. When officials met to choose holidays, Rabbi Krupka said, “we got to Good Friday, and people assumed we would cross it off the list.” But he added, “We decided there was no reason not to keep it.”

And of course the big question was not about academics, but about Jewish dietary laws.  Here is how that was worked out.

The one area in which strict Jewish standards apply is the cafeteria, whose kitchen operates under kosher rules and rabbinic supervision. The old kitchen equipment was thrown out or blowtorched in a cleansing ritual.

Lacking space for two sets of everything — one for cooking and serving meat, the other for dairy — it was decided that this would be a meat kitchen, untouched by milk products. A griddle was set aside solely for making eggs, which can fit into either category. Pastries made in a factory that uses dairy products are acceptable, as long as they are individually wrapped, and opened somewhere else.

“This was a huge learning curve for me, and I’m Jewish,” said Todd Kurtis, the dining director.

The rules extend only as far as the cash registers, which divide the kosher serving area from the nonkosher dining commons, where any food from outside is welcome.

But about that cup of coffee.  With milk forbidden, a table was set aside in the common area for adding ingredients to hot drinks. Once milk is added to a cup, the drink may not go back across that invisible barrier into the serving area, much less into the kitchen. There is no sign to that effect, but the rule was explained. Repeatedly.

So why did this work in a society where religion and public policy are now clashing?  Easy answer, there were no politics involved and the goal of everyone was accommodation, not scoring political points at the expense of religious freedom..  No administrator, either past Catholic or present Jewish could score political points by attacking reasonable accommodation.  As for the question about the ham sandwich, here was the totally sensible answer.

The rabbi, a senior vice president at Touro, cut the tension with a most rabbinic reply: “It depends.”

“On what?” the man asked.

“On whether you like ham,” the rabbi answered.

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