The Osmosis of Religion

Miriam Friedman

Once every week, Princeton University brings students home.  Perhaps not to their local towns, and maybe not with their families, but attending a Friday night home-cooked Sabbath meal at the Princeton University Chabad is just about as close to home as many college students can get. Celebrating the Sabbath takes Jewish students away from their academic work and right to the Chabad dinner table. But it’s not only Jewish students who look for a taste of home at this weekly event; interested friends, faculty members, and students of all faiths are among the regular attendees. This non-academic side to Princeton’s research can be both highly informative and enjoyable. Being immersed in religious experiences like these can imbue individuals with a sense of perspective, and helps foster a broad sense of campus community.

The best way to understand the religious practices of others is by experiencing them. As the chair of the Chabad Sabbath committee, Isaac Wolfe ’20 regularly invites people to join him at Friday evening Sabbath dinners. “There are new faces at the table every week,” he says. The bustling atmosphere at Chabad is a testament to the open religious culture on Princeton’s campus. While most students do not identify as religious, they are eager to immerse themselves in the customs of others. “This is a meaningful experience for my friends,” says Wolfe. At these events, Wolfe entertains his friends’ questions, relaxes, and enjoys a nice Sabbath meal.

Even on Princeton’s fairly liberal campus, the discussion of religion is not taboo. “Religion means many different things to many different people, and many of my friends are eager to explore that,” says Delaney Thull, a junior in the philosophy department. Thull says that she has had numerous discussions with friends who were curious about her faith. “People on campus are open about their lack of religious belief, but are still respectful to those who are religious,” she says. While Thull herself is a Christian, she still finds herself attending religious events of other faiths to gain perspective. “I have been to many Sabbath dinners, and even a Passover Seder,” she says. Thull describes the religious environment on campus as “diverse.” There are more than fifteen chaplains on this campus, and they regularly meet to learn from each other and to discuss campus issues, proof that the diversity exists beyond paper. This truly open environment means that Thull, and others like her, feel uninhibited to share their religious beliefs with those willing to ask.

Fascination with different religious ideologies on campus has led to the creation of interfaith groups. There are officially ten established religious groups on campus, and within these groups there are anywhere from 2 (in the case of Judaism, for example) to 26 (in the case of Christianity) smaller niche associations. In the last few years, there has been a surge of people interested in facilitating discussion between members of different communities. One such group, Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, was born out of the idea of encouraging interaction between members of the two faiths. The group collaborates on social justice projects and has even gone on a joint-service trip to Detroit in the past. Other such groups, such as the Religious Life Council and the Princeton Spirituality Group, aim to foster conversation and increase appreciation of campus diversity.

It might seem odd that a campus that has such a high level of religious interest would have such a low number of students academically devoted to its study. In fact, with only nine senior and five junior concentrators, Religion is one of Princeton’s smallest departments. At the same time, Princeton tops the list of the best places to major in religion in the United States according to College Factual. According to the Religion Department website, between 1992 and 2017, the department awarded 118 PhDs, with 107 of those candidates seeking to enter academia. Students in the department speculate that it remains so small because people on campus may be content with their religious stance, and more interested in exploring their other academic interests. In this sense, religion is in some ways considered a “soft” major with an uncertain trajectory outside of doctoral work. That, however, is not the case. While the senior theses may concentrate on the role of God and the interaction of cultures, this does not prevent students from exploring positions outside this realm of work. Religion majors from Princeton—like any other major—still find themselves in any number of fields after graduation, from academia to consulting.

Yet while the number of concentrators may not be large, courses in the department such as “Muslims and the Quran” and “Buddhist Philosophy” generate high numbers of enrollees. Talking to students on campus will reveal that though the average class on religion may only have ten students, many people are still interested in exploring religious philosophies. And while religion may not be a required course at Princeton, many students graduate having taken at least one course in the department.

By that token, it is clear that academic religious study at Princeton is not limited to the religious. In fact, Yael Lilienthal, a junior in the religion department, notes that most concentrators in the department are not religious themselves. She says that while she is “an exception to that rule,” most concentrators instead choose the subject because of the perspective it provides. Sometimes people conflate the department of religion with being religious, but “the department of religion does not have anything inherently religious about it,” says Lilienthal. Religion concentrators are forced to think critically about practices they always tacitly accepted. This semester, Lilienthal’s course on “Cult Controversies in America” has led her to reflect on practices of her own religion that may appear cultish. It is this process of applied human analysis that draws people to the study of religion.

While students in the religion department may attend sectarian events with higher frequency than those outside the department, they are not the only ones conducting interfaith research. Students from a variety of disciplines are constantly engaging in religious research through immersion. Delaney Thull says that she recently invited a friend in the anthropology department to attend services with her. “She really enjoyed it and she learned a lot,” says Thull. She explained that people who are not believing Christians often come to observe. “They may be trying to figure out the role that faith will play in their life, or they may be on a totally different religious journey,” she says.

The way that students conceive of religion influences the religious programming on campus. Rabbi Eitan Webb, the University’s Jewish chaplain, admits that “knowing your audience is critical in event planning.” As the Rabbi at the Chabad House on campus, he leads anywhere from three to ten events per week. These events are open to people of all religious levels with different interests. While some appeal mostly to small numbers of observant students, others attract crowds larger than 100. “Some come for religious reasons, and others come because the events are relaxing, and fun,” he says. Rabbi Webb explains that at these events, people meet others who came with similar interests, forging a sense of community.

Rabbi Webb says that programming from religious organizations on campus is not just about celebrating a holiday; it’s also about bringing interested people together. When this realization dawned on Yael Lilienthal, she realized it would be best to leave explicit religion out of some of the events she planned at the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). “CJL semi-formals transformed from a religious gathering into a general celebration for people in the community,” she says. Delaney Thull agrees, admitting that the groups she is involved with often think more about big-picture events. Last spring, Princeton Faith in Action (PFA) helped plan a 5K marathon to benefit refugee families. The event was a smashing success, bringing people from seemingly opposite ends of campus together to support a common cause and form a sense of community.

There are endless pockets of religious experience on campus. And while the is no dearth of religious events, few of them are the same. What is unique about the Princeton campus, however, goes beyond the wide range of events. It is the climate of curiousity and openness that sets the campus apart from others like it. Be it in the form of ceaseless questions, or quiet observations, there is no “right” way to experience religion on campus. At the same time, there is no shortage of opportunity for those looking for even the smallest taste of a community like home.

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