University life can help spark spiritual side

Though Rebekah Emanuel ’06 relishes a break from school as much as the next student, life at home is not always simple. Because of her strict adherence to Jewish laws, living with her less-observant family poses some difficulties.

“My family has been supportive, but it’s not easy,” she said. “The traditions [of Judaism] make practicalities difficult. Like on Shabbat, it’s important for me to do family things, but it’s also important to be observant, which means I can’t use electricity or write or things like that.”

Emanuel’s struggles may be unique, but her development into a more religiously observant person in college is not. Many Yale students find that upon leaving college, they have become much more — or in some cases much less — religious than they were when they started school. Either way, being at college, and at Yale in particular, can be a formative time in a student’s religious and spiritual life.

University Chaplain Jerry Streets said though some students do become less religious when they get to college, it is certainly not unusual for students to begin to develop more of a religious life.

“Some students who come to Yale who were involved with a religious community at home nurture that interest while a student here; while some students who were not religious at all discover a personal interest in religion once they arrive at Yale,” Streets said by e-mail.

Many students who, like Emanuel, become more involved in the religion with which they were raised, do so in part to create the sense of community they miss from home, Abbas Mahvash ’05, head of the Baha’i Association, said. When he reached college, Mahvash’s said he delved deeper into his religion to “maintain the spiritual stability” he had at home and to find comfort.

“When you realize you’re on your own — you have psychological needs,” Mahvash said. “For that reason people reach out to religion even if it’s not completely rational — Maybe it’s a social thing; maybe it’s finding where you fit in society, finding a community, help, having psychological support too.”

Like Streets, Mahvash was careful to note that many people also turn away from religion in college. Often, students can find other, non-religious outlets that satisfy their need for community, Mahvash said.

Mahvash said he has seen that many students become either more or less religious, but few stay where they began.

“If you weren’t really into religion before, you’ve gone in one direction either way,” he said. “There’s not as much middle ground as there used to be — There are so many irreligious things going on [in college], and you’re not sure who you are. You don’t have the same religious network you had before so lots of people shy away from it. But if you are embraced by existing [religious] institutions quickly, you’re not given time to fade away.”

Rabbi Lina Grazier-Zerbarini, associate rabbi of Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, agrees that college often prompts students to question their religious life and make some sort of decision about it.

Grazier-Zerbarini, who was raised Roman Catholic but chose to convert to Judaism in part because of experiences she had during her college years, was careful to note that although students may become less observant, they are not necessarily less religious. There are ways besides attending religious services to stay religiously active, such as taking classes about the history of faiths, taking a language like Hebrew or simply remaining a spiritual person.

“If religion is a personal kind of feeling where you’re connecting with what might be beyond, then the fact that they’re not active in Hillel may say nothing about their religiosity,” Grazier-Zerbarini said.

In 1999, 39 percent of Yale college students said they were part of a religious organization, Streets said, but that does not begin to illustrate exactly how many Yale students consider themselves religious in some way.

An intellectual approach to religion is often the path Yale students choose to take, Grazier-Zerbarini said. She said Yalies seek means of becoming religious that do not violate their sense of intellectual integrity.

Finding faith through intellect is something with which Melvin Huang ’05 is quite familiar. When he began Yale, Huang says he was not at all religious and was actually suspicious of Christianity in particular. Though he comes from a Christian family, Huang was not raised with much religion in his life.

But over the course of his time at Yale, he began to develop a stronger interest in religion, specifically Christianity. Encouraged by Christian friends, his burgeoning interest deepened as he furthered his studies of the religion. Huang met with Christians to “really grill” them about their faith and began attending campus fellowship meetings.

Eventually, Huang came to a turning point.

“On Sept. 28, 2003, there was a distinct moment where I just felt so tired,” Huang said. “I was so tired of fighting all my doubts that kept coming back, fighting my old self and realizing that it’s reasonable for my reason to submit to faith.”

Huang said studying Christianity without adopting it was like having someone explain the taste of a banana to a person who has never tried one before. He said it would be nearly impossible to describe the taste, and only by tasting the banana would someone know whether they wanted to eat more or throw the rest away.

From then on, Huang decided to embrace his newfound faith and said he has not run into problems reconciling his faith with his intellectual, inquisitive nature.

“Rather than trying to understand everything and then having faith, maybe through faith I would be able to understand everything,” Huang said. “A faith that would be seeking understanding in the world we live in.”

Huang’s faith led him to compose an e-mail to the entire Yale student body about Christianity and his belief in Jesus Christ over winter break.

“My hope was to engage people in a primarily intellectual conversation about religious truths,” Huang said.

But coming to terms with both intellect and faith is the problem that many Yale students have with religion. Grazier-Zerbarini, however, said she does not see that as a reason for students to shy away from religion.

“I think there are a lot of things that one can’t prove, and to some extent, religion is not about historical veracity but more about a way to give meaning to your life and approaching the world in a way to try to have it make sense,” she said.

Candles illuminate a circle of meditation cushions in Battell Chapell. Stillness & Light, held nightly from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., offers Yale students the opportunity to learn more about the Buddhist tradition.
Alex L.White
Candles illuminate a circle of meditation cushions in Battell Chapell. Stillness & Light, held nightly from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., offers Yale students the opportunity to learn more about the Buddhist tradition.

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