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Faith: Lost and Found – Changes in Students’ Religious Attitudes in College

When we first started college, my boyfriend called me one day to share an interesting bit of news. “During our president’s welcome speech, the rabbi from the Spiritual Life Center blew the shofar,” he said. “It was incredible.”

“What’s a shofar?” I asked.

I should mention that my boyfriend isn’t Jewish. He was baptized in the United Church of Christ, but hasn’t gone to a religious service in years. I’m the Jewish one.

Though I grew up in a predominantly Jewish town on Long Island, my lifestyle was much more secular than those of most of my classmates. Religion quickly disappeared from my life after I graduated from my local synagogue’s nursery school program. By the time I left for college, I could only identify four major Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover, none of which I observed. I had picked up about a hundred words of Yiddish from my mother, and I could effectively work Seinfeld references into conversation. I’d never been to a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service and couldn’t sing any of the Hebrew hymns, unless you count “Shabbat Shalom,” a song that I learned when I was three. I didn’t keep kosher, didn’t attend Hebrew school, and had no idea what in the world a shofar could be.

So, armed with this knowledge – or lack thereof – I decided to join Wellesley Hillel. My goal wasn’t to become a more observant Jew – I just wanted to learn more about the religion and figure out how my personal beliefs aligned with it. I couldn’t call myself a Jew if I didn’t even know what it meant to be one. Over the course of six months, I became a regular at Friday evening services, sat inside a sukkah for the first time, and made it through Passover without eating bread. I even met one-on-one with Wellesley’s Hillel director, who offered me guidance and lent me some books about the fundamentals of Judaism. After reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism cover-to-cover, I felt like…well, less of a complete idiot.

Two Ends of the Spectrum

Of course, my story isn’t unique. For many college freshmen, leaving home means breaking with family religious traditions and starting to forge new ones. “When we reach a certain age, we feel compelled to build our own identities,” says Victor Kazanjian, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College. And when given the opportunity to explore any of the religions represented on our college campuses, it’s natural to be curious.

“Over the past few years, there has been an increase in college students’ interest in religious engagement,” Kazanjian says. He also mentions a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), in which roughly 85% of college students reported a need for some form of spirituality.

According to Kazanjian, each of us falls somewhere on a very “fluid” religious spectrum. Some of us who were raised with little religious guidance may become heavily involved in religious groups on campus. Others, who identified strongly with a particular religion in high school, may begin to question their convictions.

Gabriela Szewcow, a freshman at Elon University, falls closer to the latter end of the spectrum. She was raised Catholic and attended church with her family every Sunday. But according to Gabriela, she “wasn’t always very devout.”

“We never spoke openly about religion at home,” she says. “I joined a youth group at a non-denominational church with my friends from high school, and I liked that a lot more.”

Though she attended Mass during the first few weeks of college, Gabriela soon became too consumed with other on-campus activities to find the time to go to church. “I admire those that [go to church],” Gabriela says, “but I think I’m still trying to figure out what it is that I believe in.”

Emily Shire, on the other hand, has found a sense of religious community since she arrived at Harvard three years ago. Emily has always identified “tremendously” with the Jewish religion, but admits that “organized religion didn’t play a huge role” in her life in high school. Her Conservative Jewish family kept a kosher house and said blessings on Shabbat, but wasn’t involved in the Jewish community at large. “I really hated Hebrew school, and I ran away from temple social activities throughout all of high school,” she says. While she was more observant at home than her classmates who practiced Reform Judaism, Emily wasn’t as involved in her temple youth group and only attended services on the High Holidays.

But at Harvard, everything changed radically. “I went to Hillel for the High Holidays at the beginning of my freshman year, and I kept bumping into people from Hillel in classes,” she says. She quickly made friends with other members of the Jewish community and joined a Jewish a cappella group. Before long, Emily’s new social circle opened up opportunities for her to explore her religion in ways she never had at home. She began observing even stricter kosher dietary practices and became a regular at Shabbat services.

“I realized how much I loved services [and] the way I saw Judaism being practiced,” Emily says. “I have learned so much, and…having Judaism in my life has become so much more important to me in college.”

As much as she enjoys Harvard Hillel functions, Emily admits that she doesn’t feel the same motivation to go to services when she comes home from college. She doesn’t have the convenience of walking to a synagogue at home, and she doesn’t “feel the same community or social connection” at her local temple. But at home, her kosher practices are just as strict as they would be at Harvard, and her family supports the changes she’s made.

“Even before I became more active in Jewish activities in college, I had always felt a spiritual connection to Judaism because of my family,” Emily says. “My family and Judaism are very much connected.”

Finding Your Own Path

Like Gabriela, Emily and me, your opinions on religion may have changed when you started college. Maybe you had a different reaction to a service you attended at your school. Maybe you’re fascinated by your new religion class and can’t forget that comment that a classmate made during lecture. Or maybe you’re just curious about the unknown.

For nearly twenty years, Victor Kazanjian has helped students of different faiths and degrees of religious involvement find what works for them. Though your school’s religious advisors can be great sources of advice and knowledge, Kazanjian points out that the answer is best found within. We should identify our core values and “what language works for each of us,” he says. We should ask ourselves questions like “What am I looking for?” and “What inspires me?”

After reading up on Judaism, I eventually solved the mystery of the shofar. (For those of you who care to know, it’s a ram’s horn that is blown to usher in the New Year.) I made lists of which Jewish holidays and rituals I would adopt and which I wouldn’t. And after six months of worshipping and breaking bread with other Jews, I realized that a Jewish community didn’t provide me with the inner peace I was looking for. I agonized over pronouncing Hebrew words phonetically and remembering the tunes to the hymns we sang during Shabbat services. I had trouble making friends with other, more religious Hillel members because I felt so out of place at community dinners. Nonetheless, my brief involvement in Jewish life was a positive experience for me, as it helped to strengthen my identity with my religion. I may not be the most observant, but I now feel I can call myself a real Jew.

Sources: Victor Kazanjian, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, Wellesley College
Emily Shire, junior at Harvard University
Gabriela Szewcow, freshman at Elon University

Hallie Santo is a sophomore at Wellesley College majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She is the programming director of her campus radio station, WZLY 91.5 fm, and a founding member of Wellesley’s new fashion magazine, Hey, Madeline. This past summer, the Long Island native interned at New Wave Media’s New York office and compiled Marine Technology Reporter’s annual MTR 100 list of leading subsea companies. Hallie hopes to continue working in the publishing industry after college as either a writer or editor while pursuing her passion for poetry in her spare time. She also loves yoga, vegan food, Russian novels, and ice hockey.
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