by Aliyah Kiesler
A student-run forum on religious views and concerns at Drew was held in Seminary Hall on Monday, Oct. 24. With representatives from religious organizations from both the Drew and Madison community, the forum was structured into four sections: a general introduction to each group, dietary restrictions on campus, academic accommodations that need to be met, and finally, harassment and discrimination based on religion on campus. After every panel discussion for each section, the panelists switched out and the room opened up for further discussion and conversation.
The forum began by introducing the Spirituality House, one of the themed houses on campus that exist to provide a safe space for all religions. Dominique Butler (’17), a member of the house, mentioned that once a week the members of the house get together and talk about concerns and ideas surrounding various topics of spirituality and religion. Along with these regular meetings, the members also organize events based on the theme of the house for people to attend. Many leaders of religious clubs attended the event as well; Leah Nadel (’18), the president of the Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, discussed the recent events that focus on celebrating Jewish holidays while on campus. Other than the holidays, Hillel hosts events that relate to Jewish culture such as hosting trips to watch Fiddler on the Roof or traveling to Ellis Island, which are open to non-club members. Nadiya Nawsheen (’19), the president of the Muslim Student Association on Campus, added that the function of their club is “similar to Hillel because we also hold events that inform the student body about Islam and provide them insight into tradition, celebration, holidays”. Nawsheen stressed that one of the most significant objectives of the MSA community is to shape a “decent and well rounded representation of the Muslim student body, especially with the rising tensions around the political season.” Suchir Pongurlekar (’18), the President of DHARMA, Drew Hindu Association Recognizing My Atman, recently organized religious group on campus, identified the club’s primary step is to get a good Hindu representation on campus. Pongurlekar said that though there is a low representation on campus, the club is thriving “in terms of awareness. There is a huge diversity at meetings. It is usually more people who are not part of the religion who end up attending.” He added that DHARMA is having an event called Diwal/Garba on Friday, November 4th. The overarching theme stressed by all of the club leaders was the importance of religious expression and participation in understanding other religions. The nature of expressing religious belief is that it ties directly into people’s identity in a way which other types of beliefs and related expression do not.
The next discussion revolved around dietary restrictions on campus. “There is a vegetable option available but the issue is cross-contamination,” Zoey LaChance (’18) said. This remark gained great agreement by attendees. LaChance explained the issue of cross-contamination by giving the example of Buddhists who follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Though the campus dining offers vegetarian options, she said that it is disturbing to see the same tongs that are used for vegetarian items are being used to serve meat products. Dietary issues apply for students of different religions; Muslim and Jewish students have limited options due to the fact that they do not eat pork. Jared Sutton (’17) mentioned that the lack of Kosher kitchen may hinder Jewish students from attending Drew. He added that the kosher options are not only very expensive but also are not savory. Another major problem students face is the lack of labels on the food at the Commons. Many students including LaChance said that “they need to view our religious diet as if it were an allergy. Or, in other words, they need to treat it as an ethic allergy.”
Academic accommodation was another major concern of the students. All students discussed that it is very difficult to ask a professor to skip classes or events. This difficulty seems especially relevant to theater and science majors because of their labs. Though some professors understand the religious accommodations of the students, many do not. The students did recognize that this concern is not limited to Drew students. For example, only two schools in the U.S. had Yom Kippur, a Jewish Day of Atonement, off, and many schools do not have other religious holidays off.
The last issue discussed at the forum was the harassment students face on campus because of their religious beliefs. “Every faith should and does have every other faiths back,” said Sutton. Curiosity and learning about other cultures and religions is the only way to help create open minded students. “That is why we are here, to educate and be educated,” said LaChance. It is a commonality between all religions and faiths to accept other people for who they are.
Many different solutions were offered by the forum members and audience to raise religious awareness on campus. The forum members agreed that one good first step is to share information about different faiths and establish different leaders, such as athletic coaches, faculty members, community members to those who need help when there is religious discrimination on campus. Jonathan Golden, the Director for the Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict stressed the importance of holding intrareligious forums because “it really comes down to informing the public and having intrafaith leaders” to ensure religious freedom on campus.