Dorm Renovation Complicates Religious Observance


Photo Courtesy of Dickinson College

Kisner-Woodward dorm. The circular lobby contains the gender-neutral mechanical bathroom with the rooms in the towers on either side.

Rachael Franchini ‘19, Associate News Editor

Each year during the spring housing lottery process, the Office of Housing and Residential Life grants accommodations to students with disabilities or religious needs. One Dickinson senior, however, says her needs for accommodations to observe Orthodox Judaism were unmet.

Abby Garfinkle ’16 says that she has faced many obstacles to observing her religion on campus, even after she was granted accommodations by the office of Housing and Residential Life. As an Orthodox Jew, Garfinkle keeps the Sabbath, which means that for approximately 25 hours a week (beginning at sundown on Friday until just after sundown on Saturday), she cannot use electricity, write, draw, or cook, among other restrictions. She also keeps a strict kosher diet.

Last spring, Garfinkle chose to live in KW for the 2015-2016 school year. Garfinkle says that when she came to campus for the fall 2015 semester, she found that renovations made to KW over the summer complicated her bathroom access during Shabbos, which is the 25-hour period from sundown on Friday to just after sundown on Saturday. The renovations added motion-activation technology to all of the toilets and the sinks in dorm, meaning that she could not use them without using electricity and violating Shabbos requirements. The only toilet that remained mechanical was the gender-neutral, single-use bathroom in the lobby, and she was only able to use the sink in the kitchen.

Following winter break this year, more changes were made to KW that compounded Garfinkle’s situation. She says that the doors between each tower and the lobby had ID-scanners attached, preventing her from accessing the only bathroom that did not previously require electronics. According to Garfinkle, this meant she would not be able to use the bathroom, brush her teeth or leave her dorm for 25 hours.

In response to Garfinkle’s predicament, Residence Life put manual key access between her tower and the back door on Louther so that she could bypass the lobby entirely, according to Garfinkle.  As a result, Garfinkle now has to leave the building, circle around and re-enter through the lobby door any time she needs a toilet or sink during Shabbos, she says. She then has to leave the building and re-enter again when she wants to go back to her room.

“I was told that I either needed to accept it and put up with it, or move out,” stated Garfinkle.  “When these accommodations are treated as charity, it really tells me that I’m not even valued as a student.”

Angie Harris, the associate dean of Students and director of Residence Life, could not comment specifically on Garfinkle’s case due to confidentiality rules. She says, however, that  “it is important to me that we do our very best to create an inclusive residential community – this consists of a multitude of things, including working to accommodate different religious practices.”

Harris also states that students who have specific needs or concerns are encouraged to “come and see me – send me an email or stop by my office.  I can and will do my best to advocate for students as I can, talk with them about our housing process and help brainstorm and identify solutions.”

But Garfinkle still expresses dissatisfaction with the help she has received.

“Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to the idea that I’m not going to get any help with this,” says Garfinkle. “The school talks about diversity, but that only really seems to extend to things that aren’t a whole lot of trouble for them.”

Garfinkle compares her bathroom limitations to transgender students who feel unsafe using gender-specific restrooms.

“Every semester we have these referendums because it’s an affront to their [transgender students’] human dignity,” Garfinkle says.  “If the school is raising awareness that this is not an acceptable thing, then why is it acceptable to do to me?”

Garfinkle says that she sometimes envies the fact that transgender students have allies and activists fighting on their behalf.

“At least they have groups on campus that will fight for them,” Garfinkle says. “I have no one but myself. There’s minorities and then there’s minorities so small that no one notices.”