Faith groups connect to broaden appeal

Dozens of religious organizations are joining an interfaith campaign this fall, hoping to revive waning memberships by appealing to a larger audience.

The movement links Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups to create large-scale programming with religious speakers and community service, rather than traditional programming, to help groups reach a wider community as they see a crunch in membership.

Co-president of the Interfaith Council Shivam Gosai said groups have been more keen to create an interfaith community as interest in individual religious groups tapers off, boiling down to a core of just the most devout members.

“We’re trying to actually have these faith groups work together, to make strong connections, so the interfaith community becomes important for each organization,” Gosai said. “I think the community service events will be a way to reach out to those who aren’t necessarily affiliated with one religious group on campus.”

Events that focus less on specific teachings or holiday traditions would attract a group larger than the 30-member core, Gosai said.

The transition to interfaith events with a broader scope reflects the direction many groups have taken their programming in recent years, adding an entertainment-focused twists to traditional events. Traditional scripture studies and religious services are among the programs fading out of popularity.

Jewish Student Association president Gabriel Felder said while the student body is about one-third Jewish, far fewer are involved in Jewish campus groups.

To boost interest, Felder said the group has focused more on cultivating “Jewish identities,” through activities like baking Challah weekly at Hillel and hosting new events related to films and art that reflect Jewish history and culture.

“Cultural programming tends to bring in more people, mostly because it involves food, but I like to think we’ve created programing based on what the Jewish community wants,” Felder said. He added that the group was trying to build a Jewish campus presence “that doesn’t end on a Friday night.”

He said more than 100 turned out for their Sukkot banquet celebration, which ended the week-long holiday Thursday.

Felder said the heart of his organization is thriving, with about 40 students expected to attend a Kosher potluck dinner this week. He said it is “not necessarily a lot of numbers, but quality.”

“We’ve drawn in a sort of niche community – a good group of forward thinking progressive participants who want to cultivate a section of their Jewish community,” he said.

Gosai, also the president of the Hindu organization Satyam, said he favors the group’s smaller events. A ceremony to celebrate a Hindu goddess later this month will likely draw about 30 members. He said the group chose to keep the event low-key because smaller events are more meaningful and allow for a “deeper” reading and discussion of scripture.

President of Muslim Students Association Raneem Rajjoub said her group, which has about 20 committed members, will welcome the increase of interfaith programming in the hopes that it will help expands the group’s outreach to younger students who can eventually carry on the group.

And as the other co-president of the Interfaith Council, Rajjoub said she will make sure her organization is actively involved in the council’s community service and “Peace, Not Prejudice” week in late October.

Rajjoub said her organization makes sure its members “learn about other people and their traditions, as well as teach others about our religion.”

The GW Catholics has seen their core of devout individuals shrink, but membership has increased after the group added more community service events, president Justyna Felusiak said. This year, the group – part of the Newman Center – has made sandwiches for the D.C. central kitchen and rosaries for military chaplains.

“Initially when I came freshman year, [the townhouse] was just for Newman events. But now it has turned into a hangout to study and to hold movie nights,” Felusiak said, adding that more and more members see the F Street building as “a home away from home.”

Some organizations say they have already benefited from expanded programming beyond the traditional religious events.

Dignity GW, an LGBT-focused Catholic student organization, has collected a core of about a dozen members in its second semester on campus. Co-founder Blake Bergen said the group will branch out to LGBT film screenings and dinners this year to tap into the broader LGBT community on campus, bringing in students who are not Catholic.

The organization, which studies the intersection of sexuality and religion, hosts events like LGBT Bible study and sometimes brings priests into residence halls to hold masses focusing on discussions about sexuality.

“For us, at least, we are able to attract people who can’t find an ideal Catholic community anywhere else, where they can have those conversations about sexuality and their faith,” Bergen said.

Ryan Peck, president of the Protestant Campus Ministry Association, said his organization has grown since adding interfaith events and community service into the group’s offerings. Peck leads a group of more than 10 interfaith students biweekly in serving at Youth Services Center, an overcrowded detention facility in Northeast D.C.

“People come to college curious, they want to know what’s out there. Part of our job is to accommodate undergrads who are curious about their faith,” Peck said.

This article was updated Oct. 8, 2012 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly identified Raneem Rajjoub as a male. We regret this error.

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