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, New Jersey, 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 gathered on the upstate New York campus for the Watson School of Engineering graduation on Saturday (May 16), Greenberg took his place at the podium. And on jumbo screens on either side of the stage, he watched himself deliver the graduation address he taped in the university’s video studio on May 13.
It was nearly the 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 explained 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—“microphones.”
“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 while it would be no problem to speak into an open microphone, 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.”