The View From Campus New York University

On Not Losing My Religion

Being observant on a secular campus can have political repercussions.

Views from NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life. Photos by Doria Kahn.

It’s Friday afternoon. As my friend and I leave English class, I’m immediately preoccupied. She waits patiently as I figure out whom I need to call and what arrangements I need to make — and wonder how on earth I’m going to shower and get dressed before sunset and, coincidentally, Shabbat.

My freshman year at NYU has been one of the most exciting and challenging times of my life. I’ve met incredible people and forged meaningful bonds I know will last me well beyond this semester. Although I’ve always been Sabbath-observant, I grew up on the Upper West Side surrounded by many kinds of people. Coming from a family that valued pluralism, I’ve always known strong religious adults of different faiths.

My affinity for pluralistic spaces generated my excited anticipation for college and Jewish college life. I looked forward to participating in all college had to offer after Jewish day school and my gap year in Israel. Alongside my curiosity, I recognized that I had been part of primarily Jewish contexts since infancy. There were bound to be challenges around issues of both faith and secularism to which I would have to adjust.

I wasn’t too worried. NYU has a robust, very supportive religious environment. There are three centers for religion: Catholic, Jewish and Islamic. Furthermore, the Center for Global Spiritual Life features over 70 chaplain affiliates of various religions and sects.

The fountain in Washington Square Park, near campus.

The first few weeks at NYU made me question more deeply millennials’/Generation Z’s reported lack of interest in religion. I started listening more closely to my friends’ comments about faith. Often, I would hear phrases like “Thank God” or “God help us.” As respectfully as possible, I would ask: “Are you religious?” The answer was often no.

I’ve learned in my limited experience that this question is a loaded one and often doesn’t yield constructive results. Inevitably, I asked the next question: “Do you believe in a higher power?” Quite a few students said yes, and only a minority gave a definite no. Many others were agnostics or ranging between the two.

This experience comports with recent statistics in a 2014 Pew survey: half of millennials believe in God with “absolute certainty.” Also consistent with my experience is the importance of religion to millennials: 38 percent consider it to be “very important.” Finally, nearly seven-in-10 millennials believe in heaven.

So what separates me from the crowd? If so many people believe in the afterlife and still value religion to a certain degree, what’s rare about a religious person on campus?

It’s not what I believe, but the way I observe my traditions. Spirituality is easily understood by my peers. My consistency and strict adherence to ancient law was, in contrast, often baffling.

Their questions gave and continue to give me pause. My weekly 25-hour technology cleanse (Shabbat, that is) is a constant in my life — though sometimes it’s less fulfilling and spiritual than I hope. Nevertheless, I and those in my community value this time spent with friends and/or family and struggle to keep up the practice.

And yes, there are miscommunications that ensue as a result.

During the High Holidays, which fell on weekends this year, I dropped off the face of the planet Not surprisingly, I missed a lot. I’d open my phone on Saturday night to messages asking about my whereabouts. During the spring, when Shabbat ends late, I often miss invitations to dinner or birthday festivities.

Despite all of this, my friends outside of my observant circle have been wonderfully supportive.

After the initial and frenzied, “Where are you?” message, there is a reliable second text that reads: “Oh, right! It’s Shabbat. Have fun — talk to you soon.”

I trust that all of my new friends have accepted my religiosity, even if they had (well-meaning and important) questions. I haven’t been asked to abandon certain practices and beliefs, even if some of my peers find them to be absurd or nonsensical.

And yet, some beliefs I’m assumed to hold as an observant Jew are equated with fundamentalism and hatred. In today’s world, particularism and “groupthink” in religion are viewed as dangerous. And I agree — extremism and intolerance fester in many communities across the world.

Overall, my practices and spirituality have not been disrespected. But my integrated Jewish identity and beliefs, sadly, have been — not by my friends, not by anyone who knows me, but by what I am thought to represent. I’ve learned that I’m expected to compartmentalize my individual adherence to laws and separate them from my passion and affection for the greater Jewish community.

Praying? Non-political. Eating kosher? No problem. Loving my people and the Jewish homeland, despite sometimes excruciating dilemmas? Believing that all people, including Jews, have the right to self-determination? Wanting to be involved in a formal institution that facilitates these actions? Problematic, or worse.

Bottom line: I can’t and wouldn’t cut ties with institutions on campus or beyond that give me the irreplaceable space to practice my Judaism in community, study with friends, grow and, yes, encounter new ideas and be challenged. But just as my individual practice is not a weapon against those who don’t practice, my choosing to identify with the global Jewish community should not bar me from meaningful interactions with those who choose not to.

Doria Kahn is a rising sophomore at NYU.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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