Alisia Pan, Contributing Photographer

Growing up, Carly Benson ’24 went to church with her family on a “semiregular basis.” It was not until this semester that going to church became a weekly ritual for Benson, who attends Sunday services at Yale’s Battell Chapel. 

“In college, you’re like, ‘I want to figure out what I believe,’” Benson said. “That was definitely my experience. The pandemic kind of put that on hold a little bit, but I feel like that’s what I’ve been able to do.”

Despite continued limitations on food, drink, meals and aerosolizing activity — which includes practices like choral singing and taking Communion — Yale’s religious communities have largely been able to return to in-person services. The semester marks a return from remote observation for many students, and — for first years and sophomores who did not engage with Yale’s religious communities during the pandemic — an introduction to religious life at Yale. For those who opted out of religious services over Zoom, the semester offers a renewed opportunity to connect with the University’s religious communities. 

Benson, Malini Wimmer ’22, Alysha Siddiqi ’23, Catherine Collins ’24 and Edward Kuperman ’25 reflected on how their respective relationships to religion have evolved over 18 months of observing remotely. 

Defining religious identity at Yale

For those whose early religious lives are largely dictated by family tradition, leaving for college demands that they define their relationship to religion on their own, the students expressed.

“When you’re a kid and you go to church, a lot of it’s because your dad’s like, ‘Let’s go to church! We all have to go,’” Benson said. “Now, it’s like I’m choosing to go, and I’m choosing to think about what I believe.”

As Benson has gotten older, she explained, she has grappled with how her religious beliefs align with her personal and political beliefs, and has reconsidered her relationship to religion. 

“Now, I know that I am getting up and going somewhere and getting out of bed to do it,” Benson said. “I know this is something I’m doing because I believe in it. And because I enjoy it and I think that it’s good for me.” 

Collins, who is Catholic, started attending a Lutheran church with her family after her hometown Catholic church was rocked by a sexual assault scandal. 

She made the decision to return to Catholic church in high school, receiving her first Communion and Confirmation around the same time. It was a decision that required her to define her own relationship to Catholicism — many people, she said, undergo a similar experience as they transition to religious life away from home.

“For a lot of people, they’re going to Mass with their families, and then suddenly they’re on their own and they really do have to make the time for it,” Collins said. “Because of that, I think a lot of the time it makes them have a closer relationship with their religion.”

For some students, like Wimmer, the transition to religious observation away from home occurred relatively seamlessly. 

Wimmer, who is Hindu, explained that her relationship to religion is so personal that it was not affected by the decision to attend religious services at Yale.

“I think [Hinduism is] an inherently personal space unlike Christianity, where you go to Mass service,” Wimmer said. “It’s a little bit more personal from the get-go.” 

For Kuperman, religious services provide additional structure to his daily life at Yale, and a sense of routine which he lacked at home. 

Kuperman, who did not come from a particularly religious household but grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, said that his process of religious self-discovery began during conversations with his brother over the pandemic.  

“He’s four years younger than I and was going into high school and thinking about life and meaning, and one thing he landed on was the Bible,” Kuperman said. “I kind of wanted to start with the Old Testament and help give him that foundation, so then we started doing that together. That was a lot of self-discovery, and discovery with him. Flash forward to last fall — Jewish life on campus was one of the most vibrant and welcoming spaces for me.” 

For Siddiqi, it was the transition to online religious practice that helped reaffirm her individual commitment to Islam. 

In the past, she said, she had either her parents or friends there to encourage her religious engagement — people who would remind her to pray, or with whom she could carpool to the mosque. During the pandemic, she chose to engage with Islam on her own. 

Siddiqi recalled fasting by herself during Ramadan last semester, without the traditional communal meals that signify the beginning and end of each day’s fast. 

“At first I was like, ‘This is kind of depressing,’” Siddiqi said. “But then I called my mom and I was like, ‘Yo, I did that!’ I was able to maintain my religious practices on my own. There’s a sort of beauty in that.”  

Worship during a pandemic

While some students felt distanced from their respective religious communities during the pandemic, others said they found solace in remote religious observation.

At home in Oklahoma for much of quarantine, Siddiqi said that she attended religious services and community events online, participating in Muslim communities both at Yale and in her hometown.

“My parents would follow along with stuff that was going on at home, and I would follow along with stuff that was going on at Yale. It was a really cool intersection — we’d watch our religious leaders from home, and then I’d be like ‘Oh, there’s this Yale Zoom, too.’ It was a good mix of both.”

Although Wimmer’s individual practice of Hinduism remained the same, she felt constrained by the limits that the pandemic enforced on in-person gatherings. 

“My daily religious practice didn’t change,” Wimmer said. “Hinduism is a very daily religion, so I was able to practice as I would normally. But in terms of practice with the Yale community, it became very isolated.” 

Wimmer was also involved in online religious life with the University community, sending out newsletters and connecting individually with students as the president of the Yale Hindu Students Organization.

Benson, however, chose not to attend the religious services that Yale organized online during the pandemic. 

“I didn’t even think to seek it out,” she said. “I was sick enough of Zoom. I didn’t need to be involved in anything else that was going on over Zoom.”

At home during the early months of the pandemic, Collins would sometimes watch Mass if her parents had it on the family television, but said she never sat through a full service. 

During her first semester on campus in fall 2020, Collins opted not to attend the online Mass organized by Yale’s Catholic communities. 

“I remember, the first day of fall, I was going to watch this Mass, and then the link didn’t work, and I never ended up going,” Collins said. 

Concerned about finding a quiet space to attend online services, Kuperman said that he “never even got to finding a Zoom link.”

Instead of going to services, Kuperman found solidarity with Jewish life at Yale by meeting with a senior mentor, who helped him start to learn Hebrew and become otherwise involved in the community. 

“Being able to think and discuss and connect with God in a group setting is very important, but more so it’s the support that these groups give their members,” Kuperman said. “It’s completely unconnected from extracurriculars, from how well you’re doing, from what’s going on in your life. It’s very unconditional.” 

“A very introspective time”: self-reflection in quarantine

For many students, the absence of physical community gatherings left them with time to consider their individual relationships to religion. 

“Coronavirus was a very introspective time,” Kuperman said. “A lot of things kind of came out in personal self-discovery, because there was a lot more individual prayer. There wasn’t a replacement with the virtual settings.”

In religious communities, Kuperman explained, it is easier for the values and daily practices associated with that religion to go unquestioned. During the pandemic, Kuperman began to consider the role of Judaism as it affected his values and routine interactions with others. 

For Siddiqi, observing on her own during the pandemic reaffirmed a commitment to Islam that transcends the religious communities she participates in. 

“This proves in a new way for me that yes, I can go to these community gatherings and engage with Islam on a community level, but at the same time, I have this beautiful realtionship with faith on my own that I really should be taking care of and engaging with as well,” Siddiqi said. “Even as we transition back, and I’m really grateful for this transition back, it’s a life-changing moment that I can’t really forget.” 

As things return to normal, Siddiqi said, she hopes to continue to take time for herself and prioritize spirituality from an individual standpoint. 

Collins suggested that many religious people feel a need to strike a balance between being part of a broader community and having an individual relationship with religion.

“During quarantine, my experience with religion was very much a personal relationship with God,” Collins said. “Having the restrictions lifted off and being able to go back to church and go back to that community was really nice, and it was also a reminder that while you have to have your individual relationship, you’re also serving a community.” 

Wimmer emphasized that Hinduism is inherently rooted in individual practice, and a personal relationship with religion that, for many in her community, was not affected by the pandemic. 

“I don’t think that people have become more individual with it, but they have become more comfortable taking that individuality and bringing it into the community,” Wimmer said. 

 “You notice it in little things”: returning to in-person observation 

Siddiqi emphasized that while some restrictions have been lifted for on-campus religious activity, the pandemic is still ongoing. 

“I really respect our religious leaders on campus for considering that even if we want to go back to normal, it may not be the best thing,” Siddiqi said. “You notice it in little things. You can’t linger after Friday prayer. We used to have a Friday prayer brunch, but you can’t do that anymore.”  

Currently, Siddiqi said, the Friday prayer services she attends are capped at “70 or 80 people,” a restriction she finds particularly challenging.

Siddiqi recalled how the number of people that attended religious gatherings during her first year, before the pandemic, “showcased the beauty of the Yale Muslim community,” and added how much she looks forward to seeing everyone together again soon. 

At Battell Chapel, public health guidelines prohibit people in the congregation from singing, although a separate choir is allowed to perform. Despite these restrictions, Benson explained that watching the choir was one of her favorite parts of attending church in person. 

“Music is a big part of going to church for most people, and I definitely like hearing people sing in front of me,” Benson said. “That’s an experience that no one had over the pandemic. It’s been really nice, and you’re definitely like, ‘Wow, this is great to actually see and hear this again.’ I think that’s an element of it that I really started to appreciate now.” 

For Collins, who now attends in-person Mass and is also involved in the student group Christian Union Lux, attending religious services is also an important way to step away from the pressure of campus life. 

“I think one of the major critiques of being a Yale student is that it’s almost always a rat race.” Collins said. “It’s very competitive. Everyone’s focused on their image and what they want their future careers to be. Being able to connect with that community and also being able to listen to sermons has brought me a lot of peace.”

Siddiqi emphasized that the experience of transitioning to in-person observance after a year and a half away is one that students of all faiths share. 

Regardless of what particular religion you practice, Siddiqi said, being religious at Yale is a common experience. 

“One person might be Catholic, and one person might be Hindu, but our religious experiences or engagement with religion, and our story of how we are religious at Yale is really similar, post- and pre-COVID,” Siddiqi said.  

The University Chaplain’s Office is located in Bingham Hall on Old Campus. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.