Eric Waldman’s mother told the temple where they could find her son. It was his first Hanukkah away from home, and the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, New Jersey, had a package for him. Inside were a menorah, candles, chocolate gelt, dreidles, a book of prayers and instructions. Waldman, a senior, says every member of his temple who goes off to college gets the same box around this time of year.
In room 632 of Thurston Hall, Waldman celebrated Hanukkah for the first time on his own three years ago.”
“I put on my yarmulke, I said the three prayers of the first night, and I lit the candles,” Waldman recalled. “I was actually concerned because in Thurston they don’t allow any fires, so I was hiding it from my CF.
“I had always done it with my father, and I felt a sense of growing up,” he said. “I was coming into my own as a Jewish person in college.”
The first year away from home can often be a test for a student’s faith. Often, parents are the driving force behind students’ religious observance. When parents are removed from the equation, what, if anything, motivates students to practice the religion with which they were brought up?
Sometimes religion gets lost in the transition to independence, but sometimes it’s enhanced by the experience of leaving the nest. College is a time of exploration and introspection, though for many students it’s an opportunity to reevaluate their beliefs.
“When you get to be 18 or 19 years old, I think it’s only natural to question the (faith) that you grew up with and make sure that it’s something you genuinely believe in,” junior Michael Furman said. “I have plenty of friends of different faiths who have gone through the same thing.”
Waldman grew up practicing Judaism in New Jersey. He was active in the religious community, going to synagogue with his parents and attending a Jewish high school on Sundays. His rabbi even encouraged him to become a cantor to at one time. A cantor assists the rabbi by leading the congregation in song and prayer. As he spends more time away from home, however, the Jewish religion has become less of a priority. Now in his fourth year, Waldman doesn’t light the Hanukkah candles.
“I identify myself with the Jewish religion, but I don’t feel a need to practice it at this point in my life,” Waldman said. “My interests belong to other things, like what I’m going to do for the rest of my life and spending time with those that I care about.”
Other students share Waldman’s lack of zeal for religious observance, including junior Shamik Trivedi, who comes from a Hindu background.
“I’m a vegetarian, I know a lot about the religion, but it’s not a big part of my life,” Trivedi said. “I feel bad. I feel like it should be, but if I wasn’t asked, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it.”
Sophomore Ann Geisler, who was raised Protestant, said that during the early years of her life she attended Sunday school and church about two Sundays a month, but when her family moved, they became less observant. After coming to college, Geisler said she had little interest to practice and to attend church.
Some students have chosen not to believe in religion at all.
“I have respect for religion, but I don’t believe in God,” said Emma Stayduhar, a senior who was raised without religious influences. “I’ve read lots of the Bible and the Koran, I’ve been to church, and none of it has made me want to join.”
Stayduhar’s mother was raised Jewish and her father Catholic, but did not practice either in the house as she was growing up. Stayduhar said she believes tradition can be separated from a higher being. She said that while spending the summer in Guatemala two summers ago, she was so moved at a Gospel church she attended that she cried.
“I think it’s good for people to get up, dance and be happy, but you don’t have to believe in God to go,” she said. “It was emotionally overwhelming and the only time I ever enjoyed church.”
However, with the fresh start of college and the ambiguity of life afterward, some students take time to explore their own faith. While many students say they’ve become less religious after several years of college, senior Katrina Bravo says that her faith has grown. She has progressively become more connected to Catholicism in her three and a half years at GW.
“When you get to college, it’s a completely different experience, so you kind of want to get away from everything you’ve known for the past 18 years,” Bravo says. “You want to do your own thing, but when you’re going out, you’re thinking about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life – you know, marriage and all that stuff – so you look back, or at
least I do, to religion.”
Bravo tries to attend mass dail, and is very active with the Newman Catholic Student Center. Facilities like the Newman Center, as well as many religious student organizations, allow students to practice their religions and meet other students with similar backgrounds and interests. Often, these organizations serve as a vehicle for social interaction between students of the same faith.
“How actively you practice your religion often depends on who you socialize with,” Trivedi said. “I don’t hang out with many Indian kids, so my exposure to Hinduism is limited. My parents encourage the social groups, though. They want me to meet a nice Indian girl.”
Junior Michele Abbani is very active at Hillel, a gathering place for Jewish students. She said she believes organizations like these are key to enhancing a student’s on-campus religious identity.
“They’re wonderful,” Abbani said. “It gives students who don’t have the guidance of their parents a chance to realize that religion is still prominent and they can still practice.
“I felt that, while not being surrounded by my parents’ influence, it was up to me to follow out my religion, and by going to Hillel on a weekly basis, I was able to meet other people who were feeling the same way that I was.”
Freshman Ricky Harika has never cut his hair. A follower of Sikhism, Harika wraps his waist-length hair ceremonially in a turban as is required by his religion.
In his last year of high school, after September 11, his turban caused problems, as people would shout cruel remarks and would confuse him with a Muslim. While Sikhism, an Indian religion founded in the fifth century, is one of the world’s most practiced religions, Harika knew very few other Sikhs in his hometown of Pittsburgh. When Harika came to GW, however, he found a close-knit community of practicing Sikhs and an open-minded student body. Harika is now the freshman representative for the Sikh Student Association.
“People are a lot more welcoming here and a lot more aware of what’s going on,” Harika said. “Instead of making comments, people come up to me and ask questions about my religion.”
Junior Ruby Jain is one of the few students to practice Jain at GW. Her father changed his last name from Baib to Jain when he arrived in America 30 years ago, for an easier pronunciation. One of the less-practiced religions in northern India, Jain has been most often compared to Hinduism but has some differences. The main concepts of the religion are non-violent. There are varying levels of followers.
“Monks wear cloths over their mouth so that when they breathe, they don’t kill organisms,” Jain said. “My maternal great grandmother was a monk and she walked barefoot to avoid killing bugs with her shoes. My paternal grandmom is still very strict. She won’t eat anything pulled out of the ground because when you pull vegetables such as carrots out of the ground, you kill more organisms than pulling an apple out of a tree.”
The religion allows its believers “to practice the religion to the extent that you can.”
“Not everyone can wear a cloth every day,” she said. “Not everyone is capable of living the life of a monk.”
Jain said she has been a vegetarian her entire life, but finding food to eat at GW has been hard for her. Another part of the religion Jain takes seriously is avoiding drinking alcohol and taking drugs.
“Most of my Jain friends do drink, but for me it was just something I chose to do,” she said. “My friends have always been really supportive. Freshman year, it was somewhat of an issue, but after people found out that I don’t it wasn’t even a problem.”
She does, however, eat vegetables rooted from the ground.
“I still continue to pray,” she said. “There is a Jain temple, but it’s not Metro-accessible so I pray in my room and observe the holidays. It’s a little harder when you’re at school.”
Before transferring to GW in fall 2001, junior Adam Chandler spent a year living abroad in Israel. GW’s lax religious attitude was a vast departure from his year before college. Now he serves as vice president of the Jewish Student Association and is active in the Jewish Greek Council and the Student Alliance for Israel.
“Once I got here, there was a lot less structure (than in Israel),” Chandler said. “So it was more my initiative to worship on my own, to observe my faith on my own and to be involved in things that are conducive to that.”
Despite his active involvement in several religious organizations, Chandler offers a caveat about joining such organizations as Hillel and the Newman Center. Coming from Texas rather than the East Coast, and not sharing many of the same experiences with his fellow Jews on campus, Chandler found it hard to relate to some of the students at Hillel.
“Those organizations aren’t for everyone,” he said. “I feel a lot of times they shut people out. It’s more about finding people who you feel comfortable expressing who you are with in terms of your religious identity. You’re going to find that your ideals will shape theirs, and their ideas are going to shape yours back, and then you’ll find that your religiousness is more important because it’s contributing to something – a greater whole.”
All in all, Chandler believes the determining factor whether someone will remain spiritual or not once they come to school lies within themselves.
“It’s a very personal decision,” Chandler said. “Community can influence it, but it doesn’t always.”
Students said when it’s your decision, it’s a more authentic experience – the first time you celebrate a religious holiday on your own, for example, without coaxing from adults. Mike Furman recalls one of the first Passover seders he and his friends assembled at college.
“Besides more drinking wine and less singing religious songs, it was different from the seders at my parents’ house,” Furman said. “But at the same time it was kind of nice because it was really genuine – there were eight or nine guys who really wanted to do it, you know?”
-Adina Matusow contributed to this report.