During my four years at Sarah Lawrence College, I have undertaken a lot of responsibility with clubs. From the Phoenix to Hillel, Peer Health Education to Student Senate, my schedule has always been jam-packed. But I think one of the most rewarding experiences is my work with Interfaith Union, a group I co-founded and co-chair.
As the head of Hillel, the Jewish organization, I have experienced my fair share of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, from a student doing a heil Hitler salute during the national anthem at homecoming to Facebook pages calling for a destruction of Hillel by destroying it from the inside out. Feeling ostracized and unsafe on the campus, I reached out to my fellow religious and spiritual groups for support. Other groups explained how they have felt similar isolation from the rest of campus. It was through this exchange of experiences and focus on open-dialogue that the idea of Interfaith Union came to fruition.
The organization, which is a conglomerate of Assorted Pagan Association, Christian Union, Dhammah Club, Hillel, MSA, Spiritual Space and UUreka, primarily puts on dinners that revolve around a certain theme. These alliances represent the possibilities for other students involved in different interest groups to work with other organizations, pull in resources and make real change stemming from our campus.
Past dinner themes have included Interfaith Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and Women in Religion. Our most recent dinner, and my last Interfaith Union event, was Community Unity Dinner on April 26, where each faith group has invited spiritual leaders and congregates from the outside cities. By bringing the outside in, we not only learned from various groups, but also transmitted our knowledge of interfaith so that they can continue in their communities.
The mission behind the dinners is that as we share food, a need for physical survival, we exchange ideas, a need for the spirit and mind’s survival. As noted on the six-point mission statement of Interfaith Union, a poster that can be seen around campus, the most important aspect to these events is that we have faith in each other. The other five points are: Interfaith Union is a group of student-based spiritual organizations, it provides a community that accepts all faith and spiritual backgrounds, events are an informal sanctuary for students to express their faiths, when one group is targeted by religious prejudice, Interfaith Union will stand in solidarity and support, and interfaith is a form of resistance to hate by being an expression of love.
In today’s world, there is so much hate rooted in religion, a sentiment that ironically religious doctrines are against. By providing a space that fosters communication between various religious backgrounds, we can promote understanding and, in turn, respect. Although Sarah Lawrence is a relatively insular and safe community, religion is not a part of a regular conversation. This means that when we leave this campus and become active citizens within our communities, religion and its interface with everyday issues will not be on our radar.
There are so many progressive issues that need to be discussed: LGBTQIA and women’s rights, environmental sustainability, immigration and more. It makes sense that religion could be swept under the rug within our daily activism. But if we look at most, if not all those issues, religion plays a heavy hand in their current realities. If we just dismiss religion as archaic and backward, then we not only miss a fundamental component to important issues, but we also exclude a good majority of the people who value religion in their lives. If we want to leave this academic institution and effect real impact in the world, we have to include religion and interreligious dynamics within our conversations.
I have personally been struggling with my religious identity for several years. I grew up as a Lubaviture Orthodox Jew. I left the Hassidic community when I was 13-years-old, because I found that my progressive values and the stringent dogma were incompatible. Since leaving that community, I have been searching, a “wandering Jew” without a religious identity. But with interfaith works, I found that I could find spirituality and fulfillment within tangible forms of coming together with other spiritual groups and elevating religion to a progressive platform.
Finding ways to work with religion and to bring it into the contemporary lens will lead us to a larger acceptance of diversity. Through this process of solidarity building, we can also find empowering elements within the different religions we learn from. For example, during our Interfaith Women in Religion Dinner, we discussed important biblical and current women of faith and how religion can add to our feminism. We came to the consensus that it is the patriarchy, not religion that oppresses women. While there are some cringe-worthy sections of religious texts and throughout history, we have to find its positives and build off of them to evolve into the future we want.
Andrea Cantor (‘17)