Senior Rebecca Lankin vividly recalls her strategy for surviving the deluge of college mail that flooded her Philadelphia home four years ago.
“I had this book that Hillel puts out each year and every time I got information from a school, I would look them up. If they didn’t have a big enough Jewish community I would chuck the mail,” Lankin said.
After the mountain of colorful pamphlets dwindled to a lone flier from GW, Lankin enrolled, eager to be ushered into the open and faithful Jewish community she expected to embrace at the University.
She was bitterly disappointed.
“They put the best spin on it,” Lankin said. “The Jewish community here is tremendously cliquey and not very cohesive. There is also tremendous pressure (in the wider University) not to care about religion at all and be atheistic or agnostic.”
While many disagree with Lankin’s assessment, the swift religious undercurrents pulsating throughout GW have similarly deceived and surprised many.
“Religion never struck me as something you discuss with your friends, but it is here,” freshman Trudie Somberg said.
In grasping the appropriate term for the complicated dynamics of religion at GW, most tend to shy away from the word tension. “Vigorous discussion,” is the phrase most preferred by Harry Yeide, a religion professor who has observed the phenomenon with interest in his 40-year tenure at GW.
Foremost in his assessment, Yeide noted that GW is largely a university of moderates – conservative students, chiefly those of Jewish or Christian faiths, often feel the GW environment is inadequate in contributing to a strict adherence of orthodox doctrine.
The majority of students who enroll at GW, therefore, tend to express a moderate religious outlook, often choosing to practice their faith in a private, less vocal manner. On campus and throughout the United States, outspoken minority religions often succeed in seizing the spotlight from the silent majority.
“Those who are minorities in the United States tend to want to display their differences,” Yeide said. “Groups like Protestants and Catholics, who feel more comfortable and established in this country, have a tendency to be less conspicuous.”
The University discontinued the practice of collecting religious information from students decades ago in an attempt to preserve privacy, leaving many to ponder blindly the exact spiritual composition of GW.
“The rumor is that a little less than a third of GW students are Catholic,” Newman Catholic Student Center director Therese Bermpohl said. Lankin estimated about a quarter of GW students to be Jewish. A GW Muslim Students’ Association official said approximately 1,000 Muslims attend the University. The remainder is assumed to be composed of adherents to the Protestant branches of Christianity, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism or various other world religions, in addition to agnosticism and atheism. Without official data, however, the figures are just estimates.
“The assertion is that there are more Jewish and Catholic students here than any other kind of student,” Yeide said. “This may be true or not, but I think it has to do a lot with the area from which most of these students come – Jews and Catholics are most prevalent in the Northeast.”
Junior Sheryn Alexander has noticed a wealth of Christians at GW, though most tend to lean toward apathy along the religious continuum, she said.
“I wonder how many ‘practicing’ or ‘religious’ Christians there are here, but I don’t feel as if I have nowhere to go if I want to meet with other Christians,” Alexander said.
However, Alexander said she does not mind the lack of strong Christian vocalism at GW; the religious diversity helps increase awareness throughout campus, she said.
“Most students are religiously tolerant. These days they seem to be more religiously tolerant than politically tolerant,” Yeide said.
Many attribute the accepting nature of the University to the environment of the surrounding city.
“I think being in D.C., everyone’s very educated and it’s very diverse,” said junior Ricky Harika, president of the Sikh Students’ Association at GW. “Some of my friends at more rural universities said they do experience some tension. But I haven’t really experienced that at all.”
Junior Mahereen Bhatti, a practicing Muslim, was not as confident.
“I think being a Muslim after 9/11 is hard anywhere, and at GW, with such a mix of people from all over, you never know if you will find intolerance and ignorance, or understanding,” Bhatti said.
Familiarity with more personal and cultural beliefs often leads to an atmosphere of grouping on campus, a phenomenon Lankin describes as “cliquey” but one others feel is not necessarily unique to GW.
“I think there are times when people at GW group together, but that’s more of a cultural thing. I don’t think it happens more at GW than elsewhere,” said senior Judah Ferst, a cabinet member of the Jewish Student Association.
Some are troubled by a growing religious apathy apparent at GW, which may indicate a national trend.
However, the drop in church attendance and decline in strict adherence to traditional faiths among college students may be more deceptive than apparent, Yeide said.
“What these students are usually saying is they have a fairly vivid sense of the sacred but don’t feel their beliefs are appropriately nourished in the liturgical communities of which they are aware. There may be more going on at GW than meets the eye,” Yeide said. “People can be religious in so many different ways.”