Daniel Hoffman ’08 doesn’t go out and party after dinner Friday nights. And when he returns to his dorm room in Vanderbilt Hall, he has to wait outside for someone to let him in. As a conservative Jew, Hoffman does not use proxy card readers to enter and exit Yale College dormitories on the Sabbath.
Before arriving on the Yale campus, new students are virtually guaranteed to have heard or seen the phrase “For God, for Country and for Yale” at least once. While most Yalies spend their freshman years adapting to the “Yale” portion of that motto, those from religiously observant backgrounds find themselves forced to figure out how to keep “God” in the balance. But despite initial social and academic difficulties, observant Yalies say their religion has provided them with stability in the long run.
Yale University chaplain Reverend Frederick Streets said Yale does its best to make all students feel welcome, though he acknowledged that observant students may face unique difficulties.
“Yale is accommodating of religiously observant students,” Streets said. “It is secular, but one shouldn’t assume it’s not a place for conservative orthodox religions.”
Hoffman said his electronic obstacle does not present much of a problem; the longest he has ever waited to get into his entryway is ten minutes. The greatest difficulty of keeping Sabbath at Yale, Hoffman said, is purely social.
“The vast majority of the high-quality parties are on Friday nights,” he said. “I generally find what the parties are on Saturday nights and go there, but it definitely decreases my options.”
One might imagine that an observant religious background could give a new student just one more way to feel different or an outcast. But Hoffman, who was educated entirely in Jewish day schools and spent a year in Israel before matriculating, said he realized Yale was going to be a change before he arrived. That realization, he said, helped him through the transition period.
“I knew it was going to be very different, but I was not surprised by anything going in, because I had prepared myself for whatever was coming,” Hoffman said.
In fact, few observant students said their social life had suffered as a result of their religion. Most said their major frustrations actually stemmed from conflicts between their religious and academic schedules, whether these conflicts arose from religious holidays or from simple daily observance.
“The toughest thing has been trying to pray five times a day on such a busy schedule,” said Altaf Saadi ’08, a freshman liaison for the Muslim Students Association. “That’s been difficult, but you know, I’ve managed.”
Religious student organizations provide observant students with a sense of stability. Many observant Yalies — such as Mary Hollis ’06, president of pro-life group Choose Life at Yale — said they found religious communities and student groups at Yale to be a great help and support in adjusting to the change.
“Right away I felt very welcomed in general at Yale and also through the Catholic community at St. Thomas More and St. Mary’s Church,” said Hollis, who is considering joining a convent after graduation. “I was also involved in doing non-religious volunteering and in going to parties and stuff — Having my faith definitely helped [with moving away from home] and gave me a good grounding.”
Saadi said she felt her involvement with the MSA provided her with a foundation upon which to build a Yale career. The MSA was one of the first booths she looked for at the freshman bazaar.
“The MSA is something I went to right away, because it’s something I knew I would need,” Saadi said. “With other clubs, it’s more like I want to explore.”
David Gershkoff ’06 said he appreciated the chance to get involved in a religious association early in his Yale career. In 2002, when Gershkoff came to Yale, Rosh Hashanah fell especially early in September, giving still-dewey-eyed Jewish freshmen somewhere else to bond outside of freshman counselor meetings and fireside chats. Gershkoff said the Yale junior class is unusually active in Slifka, perhaps as a result of this early introduction to Jewish life at Yale.
“I found the Jewish community to be very open and welcoming, having lots of events and really fantastic people who were very happy and very helpful,” he said. “It’s also sort of complicated because freshman year, Rosh Hashanah was very early in the Gregorian calendar. It was a kind of a shockwave bringing the community together.”
Older students said they found their religious beliefs have developed over the course of their years at Yale. Gershkoff and Hollis both reported they have become more observant.
“It’s illogical to assume that when someone suffers such a drastic environment change as coming to Yale is, that they will remain unaffected,” Gershkoff said. “I think that some people get more religious, some get less religious, some people find a part of their religion that never appealed to them before, some people find a religion that never appealed to them before.”
Tom Sharp, staff leader of the Yale Christian Fellowship, said he attributed much of the personal development he has seen in YCF students over their college careers to a growth in maturity.
“I would just say that [students] grow more in their understanding of Christianity and Christ,” Sharp said. “Not so much in a mental understanding — they just grow in their faith, really, in the kinds of life decisions they make. You can see from freshman to senior year there’s always a growth in maturity.”
Yale freshmen find themselves dealing with a new environment, new friends and, in some cases, a new country altogether. Nikhil Seshan ’07, a Hindu student from Bahrain, attributed the growth of his own faith to a need to maintain some connection with his roots.
“You feel more attached to your religion when you come outside your country,” Seshan said. “Sometimes when I go back I find myself too orthodox.”
When asked whether he had found himself socializing with a disproportionate number of fellow Hindus as his faith became more orthodox, Seshan said no.
“One of the most important reasons — my faith has brought me here is to meet people,” he said.
In this respect, Seshan has a lot of company. No matter their religious persuasion or the direction of their faith, observant Yale students all said they did not tend to limit themselves or their friendships to people who shared their religious affiliation.
“That’s one of the things that makes up Yale, is that everyone is different,” Hoffman said. “This happens to be one of the things that makes up [my life].”
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