Getting Religion in College
They say that religion is one of those things that you’re never supposed to discuss–but I think that college involves a great deal of challenges and changes that are tricky topics, including religion. In my case, my father is Jewish and my mother is Christian (Presbyterian to be specific). Yes, I get to receive and give presents on both Christmas and Chanukah, thanks. Neither of my parents being particularly religious, they decided to raise me celebrating both religions’ holidays but not immerse me in either one. I was not baptized or Bat Mitzvahed and I never attended any kind of religious schooling. They wanted me to be aware of both sides of my religious heritage, but in some ways the effort to do both had a bit of a neutralizing effect and, growing up, I hardly knew anything about either religion.
I’m honestly not entirely sure when I became interested in exploring both halves of my religious background. I can’t identify a key moment or event that pushed me in that direction, but around the beginning of my second year at Oxy, I made a conscious decision to explore the Jewish and Christian faiths through student groups on campus. I already knew a girl involved in the campus Hillel and I asked her to tell me more about their activities and how to get involved. The Christian side was a little trickier because more than one group existed on campus and I did not know anyone involved with the one that fit best with my existing beliefs, a club called Progressive Christians United. I found out when they met and just showed up to their next meeting. I attended PCU meetings regularly for a few months and spent a great deal of time with the Hillel students.
My original point of contact in Hillel became a good friend and I enjoyed their weekly dinners on campus and learning more about Judaism—particularly Reform Judaism—from the Rabbinical advisor and another student who was a Religious Studies major and extremely knowledgeable on the topic. At first I treated both new endeavors like an academic class: I asked a lot of questions and scribbled down notes to Google later. I fixated on the question that had emerged: Which one am I? I felt immense pressure to choose one religion. I think that this came partly from a desire for simplicity and partly from a broader change that I was experiencing at this point in my life and in college. I genuinely enjoyed spending time with both groups, especially as PCU worked on a project related to Darfur and Hillel prepared to attend a conference in Washington, D.C. I was also breaking apart from my original group of friends from my first year and figuring out my course of study. The ready-made bonds in both of these groups were extremely appealing to me. I fit in more with my Hillel friends but maintained an interest in learning about both religions—for a while, anyway.
Four or five months after my initial leap of faith, so to speak, I started to feel a little drained by the whole process. I fit in better with my Hillel friends and thus spent more time with them, but I no longer felt as intrigued by the religious basis of either association. Exploring my dual background started to feel too much like homework and I grew resistant; I stopped attending PCU meetings and preferred to see some of my Hillel friends outside of that particular context instead. By the end of sophomore year, I no longer attended any kind of religious meeting or event.
This sounds kind of depressing on paper, but it really wasn’t. When I first got involved with both groups, I made that choice. And when I phased myself out of them, I made that choice as well. I needed to see what was available to me after years of curiosity. I learned that I can be spiritual without subscribing to organized religion. I learned that I can be friends with those who are more religiously observant than I am—that first Hillel friend remains a close friend, for which I am very grateful. I learned that even though I look at this phase as a significant experience in my overall undergraduate education, it’s also an aspect of my life that continues to evolve today.
Were/are you involved in religious groups in college? What’s available at your school? Is there anything you would change about your involvement (or lack thereof) in religious organizations on campus?