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Orthodox Jewish commencement speaker finds a Shabbat workaround

Don Greenberg, student speaker for Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences commencement and an Orthodox Jew, pre-records his commencement speech with help from video producer Andrew Hatling. Greenbergs' recorded speech will be played during the Watson ceremony which falls on Saturday, May 16, 2015, the Sabbath, which Orthodox Jews do not use electronic devices such as a microphone, so that he can observe the holy day. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University
Don Greenberg, student speaker for Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences commencement and an Orthodox Jew, pre-records his commencement speech with help from video producer Andrew Hatling. Greenbergs' recorded speech will be played during the Watson ceremony which falls on Saturday, May 16, 2015, the Sabbath, which Orthodox Jews do not use electronic devices such as a microphone, so that he can observe the holy day. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University

Don Greenberg, student speaker for Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences commencement and an Orthodox Jew, pre-records his commencement speech with help from video producer Andrew Hatling. Greenbergs’ recorded speech will be played during the Watson ceremony which falls on Saturday, May 16, 2015, the Sabbath, which Orthodox Jews do not use electronic devices such as a microphone, so that he can observe the holy day. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University

(RNS) Senior Don Greenberg was looking forward to addressing his fellow students as a commencement speaker at Binghamton University’s engineering school when his girlfriend broke the bad news: May 16, graduation day, falls on a Saturday.

“Great!” he remembers telling her, in the most sarcastic of tones.

A triple major from Teaneck, N.J., with a 3.93 GPA, Greenberg is an Orthodox Jew who observes the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sunset Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. Observant Jews cannot use electricity on Shabbat, a day of rest, because of an age-old rabbinic prohibition related to kindling a fire. Speaking into the microphone on the podium, his voice causing lights to illuminate on a sound board, would not be considered kosher. Greenberg knew this and his rabbi confirmed it.

But when 2,500 students and their families gather on the upstate New York campus for the Watson School of Engineering graduation on Saturday, Greenberg will still take his place at the podium. And on jumbo screens on either side of the stage, he will watch himself deliver the graduation address he taped in the university’s video studio three days earlier.

It is nearly same speech he submitted weeks ago, about setting meaningful goals, which won him the honor of addressing his fellow graduates. Added more recently: an introduction in which he explains why he’s standing before them silently watching a video of himself addressing them.

“So, this is awkward,” his video begins. He goes on to explain how on Shabbat he must leave the workaday world behind and refrain, from cooking, driving and — the 22-year-old computer science major emphasized — “a microphone.”

“I am inexpressibly thankful to the school for going above and beyond to accommodate this central part of my life, and for ensuring that I could still deliver a meaningful speech to the Watson class of 2015,” he says, and then jokes:

“I know it will be meaningful, because I get as many tries as I want.”

When he first found out about the calendar conflict, Greenberg consulted his rabbi, the principal of his Jewish high school in the Bronx.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark and other rabbis told him that it may be no problem to speak into an open mic, one that he did nothing to activate. But if his voice caused any other electronics to function — such as the lights on the sound board — that would conflict with Jewish law. Harcsztark advised Greenberg to speak to university officials to see if they could help.

Binghamton, part of the State University of New York, could solve the mic problem, but not the sound board issue. So Ryan Yarosh, director of media and publications, came up with the idea for Greenberg to record the speech on Wednesday (May 13), in front of the same podium that he would quietly stand before on Saturday.

Katharine Ellis, senior director of communications and a speech coach to the university’s  student commencement speakers, said she knew little about Orthodox Jewish practice until she met Greenberg. But she said Binghamton was determined to do what it could to allow him to accept the honor he had earned.

Shabbat’s restrictions may be limiting  for many people, she said. “But it’s freeing for him.”

YS/MG END MARKOE

Video courtesy of BinghamtonUniversity via YouTube

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

10 Comments

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  • I don’t know whether to join others in congratulating him on his ingenuity or criticize them for applauding his escape from a trap of his own making.

    I think I’m just going to chuckle, instead.

  • This is a great opportunity for young graduates to learn a valuable lesson as they move into the business world, regardless of the specific path they choose. We live in a diverse society and it is imperative that we respect one another and try our best to accommodate the special needs of our neighbors and colleagues, whether they are physical, religious or otherwise. Kudos to Binghamton University for sending the right message and congratulations to Mr. Greenberg on his achievement!

  • Looks like @Barry the Baptist is an antisemite, seeing a Jewish young man, loyal to his heritage and religious beliefs, as some sneaky, deceived person who has escaped from the trap of his own history and people. Keep laughing Barry.

  • YASHAR KOCHACHA and Mazal tov!!! You embraced the right Torah values, inspired others to choose the higher road in their future without being apologists, offered Binghamton the opportunity to show enlightened and inclusive support, and showed our fellow Jews that some things are more important and timeless than the lure of public acclaim. This is much deeper.
    I am sure you are familiar with Achad Ha’am’s profound statement that ‘more than the Jews have kept Shabbes, Shabbes has kept the Jews’. As a KG teacher of long standing in SAR Academy, and one who made the journey to discover the beauty of Shabbes in my own life B”H, it is always my heartfelt prayer that our precious children will keep the light of Torah burning brightly in their neshama, and not be blinded by the bright lights and beguiling sounds of Western life.
    May you continue on this path always true to whowhom (?) you are!
    Kol tuv and shefa brachot tovot – (Morah) Rita-Rivka Lewy (Gan Gimel, SAR)
    .

  • When rabbis don’t know where the origin of the word “Torah” comes from how in the world can they teach us Jews about Shabbat, even where that word came from? Hebrew is the origin of these religious concepts borrowed from Egypt and Kingdom of Sheba without attribution or understanding as ancient Judah made up its own ideas about why Saturn’s Day was important. And like the earthly Torah, they got it all wrong because of failure to include the past foundations of these religious ideas meant for everyone, not just us Jews.

  • I mean Jews are in hot water when this Jew cannot post his opinions on RNS because RNS protects rabbis from criticism, even from Jews themselves. You do know RNS censors comments rabbis don’t want anyone to see, e.g. how they don’t know where Torah originates and have to play dirty to block anyone finding out. It’s telling that rabbis along with televangelists and Catholic priests hit the news as criminals more so than any other religious groups. Fear of truth is the sign of moral decay. The Celestial Torah is now recovered for Jews and Gentiles btw, and Judaism’s earthly torah is no longer appropriate for Jewish religious beliefs.

  • Stephen Lewis, once again you’re peddling your nonsense that I’ve debunked ad nauseum. Every rabbi can tell you that Torah comes from Hebrew for teaching. Your theory that it comes from the Egyptian deity “Taurowet” is nonsense because there was no such deity. There was a hippo goddess named Taweret. You switched the phonics to make it seem closer to Torah. You’re a fraud, plain and simple. No one should listen to a thing you say. That includes your latest offering, that Shabbat comes from Saturn’s Day or from Egyptian polytheism. Real scholars – the kind that don’t spend their time in Ojai getting high with their aging hippie friends – left such speculation behind years ago.

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