Hold the Latkes, Extinguish the Menorah

Religious Observances Often at Odds with Traditional College Experiences


Students accustomed to observing religious rituals may have a hard time doing so with dorm room policies. (Ashley Tedesco /The Observer)

Published: October 8, 2009

College is hard. Dorm life can be even harder, especially for those who are religiously observant students, trying to balance their faith with their studies. This is true for those trying to observe daily, weekly or annual rituals, whether that means strict dietary restrictions, the overwhelming desire to be home with family on major holidays or otherwise, and it’s cross-cultural.

For instance, Muslim students who must wash their feet prior to daily prayers have nowhere to do so, reasonably, in Lowenstein. Jewish students wishing to light Shabbat candles on Friday nights are deterred by the policy against open flames in the residence hall. Students of any religion (or none) who are socially conservative may take issue with roommates whose practices strike them as less than morally appropriate.

Some have argued that these differences mean there should be religious housing on college campuses. If all the residents of an apartment are religious Jews, for instance, how hard could it be to maintain a kosher kitchen and agree upon placing a mezuzah on the door? If Muslim students lived together, they could be served strictly halal food. Jews would all be fasting, suffering through hunger pangs together on Yom Kippur. During Ramadan, Muslim students could count down the moments until sundown, when they can again eat and drink. Catholics could remind one another to avoid meat during Lenten Fridays.

While I think religious dorms sound like a good idea in theory, they seem less practical in, you know, practice. Just look at our Wellness housing in McMahon. The program has the best of intentions, but low enrollment has prevented it from being as successful as it could be. There are connotations that come with specialized housing—stereotypes that are often untrue but that can prevent students who might be interested from enrolling. For instance, many think all the Wellness kids don’t have fun and don’t know how to party because they’ve committed to not drinking or smoking. Who’s to say that similar ideas won’t come up with religious housing? I can hear it now: “Oh, that’s for the really super religious people. They’re zealots.”

The roadblocks are plentiful enough, in this case, to make it seem unwise to even advocate for separate, segregated housing—whether that means separate buildings or designated rooms in McMahon. Frankly, it’s more important to promote equality, tolerance, learning and understanding than to group like-minded people together and theoretically stunt their social growth.

Besides, dorm life isn’t the only obstacle in college when it comes to faith and culture. Even those students who are not strictly observant face problems when it comes time for things like holidays. Sure, Fordham is a private, Catholic Jesuit school, but we’re in Manhattan—remind me again why I had to skip classes to attend Yom Kippur services? Professors have always been understanding, in my experience, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that there’s a three-hour lecture I missed. This is true not only of the Jewish high holidays, but also of Islamic holy days, like Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. No school that I can think of, public or private, would ever dream of having classes in session on Christmas or Easter, so why not offer the same option to those of other faiths?

In fact, even secular holidays fall into this category. So many students living far from home are forced to spend Thanksgiving in their dorm rooms, because home is too far away to justify a trip from Wednesday to Sunday, with classes resuming at 8:30 a.m. on Monday. There simply is not enough time to get home for the holidays.

The solutions to all of these discrepancies can be argued endlessly, to be sure, with fair points made on either side. One thing I think people of all faiths would like to see more of on campus is what their options are. Even students who aren’t too far from home may still need assistance tracking down a mosque in which to attend regular services, a kosher grocery store or a church to house them during the holidays. For this year’s high holidays, I found countless synagogues open to the public free of charge for services, but that was through research I had to do on my own time. All it could really take to make the first step is a list of nearby churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship available at places like the Campus Ministry Web site. Are we able to use Google? Sure. But it’s nice to know someone at the place that has come to be your home has a recommendation to offer.

We’re lucky to live in a place that tends toward tolerance and at least basic understanding of diversity. Being at a religiously affiliated institution is something that is beneficial for students’ religious growth, even for those of us who are not Catholic. It promotes a forum in which to discuss religion, spirituality and cultural norms, which is important for everybody. Campus Ministry’s motto of offering a home and support for students of all faiths and no faith is one to be proud of. So do we need special dorms, separate kitchens and a revamped school schedule? Maybe not. All we really need, for the time being, is a bigger presence on campus to send us in the right direction when the answers which we seek are not immediately available within the walls of Fordham University.