In a seat of secular learning, religious observance thrives
Manav Lalwani ’09 takes part in the celebration of Diwali in November. It was the first time a Hindu festival was celebrated in the Chapel.
Manav Lalwani ’09 takes part in the celebration of Diwali in November. It was the first time a Hindu festival was celebrated in the Chapel.
Frank Wojciechowski
Coordinator of Hindu Life Vineet Chander
Coordinator of Hindu Life Vineet Chander
Frank Wojciechowski

The University Chapel is an awe-inspiring building, big and beautiful enough to make even a godless heathen wonder if it’s not time to start hedging his bets. It occupies an honored place at the center of campus, just as it did when it opened 80 years ago as the heart of Princeton’s Christian worship. As the posters hanging all around campus at the start of the fall term reminded us, Chapel was “Princeton’s First Tradition.”

Chapel still is a very important tradition at Princeton. But it is now one among many religious traditions, as this year’s Opening Exercises, which were held in the Chapel, made clear.

After the members of the freshman class had filed in and taken their seats, a procession of administrators and campus religious leaders followed, led by a student swirling a brilliantly colored Japanese kite on a long flexible pole. Three other kite bearers followed, as well as four African drummers in colorful headdresses and robes.  

The ceremony itself also was determinedly multidenominational. Parts of it would have fit easily into the first service held in the building 80 years ago: a responsive reading from Psalm 104, hymns sung by the Chapel choir, organ music, and even “A Prayer for Princeton.” But it also featured texts from Judaism, Islam, and other faiths. Raj Ranade ’10 recited the Gayatri Mantra from the Vedas, from Hinduism, and Olaf Sakkers ’11 read one of the Bodhisattva Vows, from Mahayana Buddhism. Nonbelievers took part, too. For her reading, Joy Li ’11 chose a passage from The Catcher in the Rye, describing it as “from the secular humanist tradition.”

“I actually call myself an atheist,” she explains later. “But I thought ‘in the atheist tradition’ wouldn’t sound as good. And I think that being a secular humanist is much more being actively for a standard of ethics and the good treatment of other human beings. Atheism doesn’t necessarily have that implication.”

 Opening Exercises in the Chapel in September invoked a wide variety of cultures and religious faiths.
Opening Exercises in the Chapel in September invoked a wide variety of cultures and religious faiths.
John Jameson '04/Office of Communications

Says Paul Raushenbush, one of two associate deans in the Office of Religious Life (ORL): “Religion is happening on campus.”

And indeed, on the same late September night that the Muslim Students Association (MSA) was hosting 150 students for its annual Fast-a-Thon in hopes of teaching them about Ramadan, students from the multiple evangelical groups were in the midst of a weeklong prayer marathon. This was a feat of organization as well as devotion: Each student had signed up to pray for a 30-minute slot, and the group effort went on around the clock for one whole week. For members of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, or PEF, this was in addition to the 20-minute prayer meeting they hold every day at noon in Murray-Dodge. That same night, a campus group called Century One, in honor of the time when Jesus Christ walked the earth, was meeting for Bible study at Murray-Dodge. And an hour later, at 9 p.m., the Christian fellowship Athletes in Action began gathering next door, in Whig Hall, for a meeting that was decidedly more raucous than the others. Even without AiA members from the football team, which had departed for an away game, the group numbered 45 men and women. “It feels bigger than it is,” says Gordon Scharf ’09, a wrestler turned sprint football player, “because the people are bigger!”  

On Friday evenings at the Center for Jewish Life, between 50 and 80 people usually convene for Sabbath services and then are joined by others for a Sabbath dinner. Rabbi Julie Roth, at Princeton for four years, introduced white tablecloths two years ago in hopes of making the dinners (prepared in the building’s kosher kitchen) a highlight of each week. Students can celebrate and learn about Judaism not only from Roth, but from a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Eitan Webb, and a couple, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld and his wife, Sara, who help advanced students in their studies in a beit midrash, a room with sacred texts. “Princeton is a great place to be Jewish,” Roth says emphatically. (Nonetheless, she says, one of her greatest challenges is to persuade parents of prospective students that Princeton today is not the unwelcoming place it once was for Jews.)

“Religion is less weird than when I was a student,” says Dana Dreibelbis ’78, a lay Lutheran minister, in between talking to students at the bustling activities fair in Dillon Gym in the fall. “It’s more acceptable, more of a regular topic.”  

At the activities fair, tables for religious organizations stretch up and down both sides of one aisle, creating a kind of Religion Row amid the dance and musical and political groups. There’s Hallelujah!, which is made up mostly of African-Americans who meet on Sunday afternoons for a jubilant, piano-driven church service. The Crossroads Christian Fellowship gives students a chance to talk about their faith in smaller, more intimate meetings, usually in a student’s room. There’s the Manna Christian Fellowship, made up mostly of Asian-Americans; and the large Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, which organizes song-filled prayer sessions, Bible-study, retreats, and service trips, and has an offshoot called Safeguard that aims to protect students from overdoing it at weekend parties, The PEF is one of a select number of campus groups lucky enough to have its own University-recognized chaplain, Bill Boyce ’79.  

There are a cappella groups with a religious slant, like Kindred Spirit, whose members come from the PEF, and Koleinu, which sings Jewish songs (the name means “our voice” in Hebrew). And the track team has its own Bible-study group, which meets on Tuesday nights. “We use the Bible as a starting point,” explains team captain Michael Maag ’09, who hosts the meetings in his room. “But we tend to view the time as more of a ‘life study’ where we try to help each other learn to live better — more spiritually, more attuned to what actually makes humans happy. It’s a focus that’s relatively scarce in the daily routine here.”

Chaplain Sohaib Sultan, third from left, talks with students after the weekly prayer service, which is held in a room in Murray-Dodge Hall that is set aside for Muslim prayer.
Chaplain Sohaib Sultan, third from left, talks with students after the weekly prayer service, which is held in a room in Murray-Dodge Hall that is set aside for Muslim prayer.
Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton’s dean of religious life, Alison Boden, and President Tilghman are widely viewed as having done an exemplary job of supporting students in their choice of religious beliefs and practices. “We seem to have achieved that religious diversity without any intentional effort,” says politics professor Robert George, who is a conservative Catho-lic but is deeply interested in all forms of religious pursuit.  

Boden radiates not just warmth, but unflappable common sense and humor, the last of which she acquired the hard way. After graduating from Vassar in 1984, she spent several years as a starving actress in New York, specializing in comic roles. She had no intention of going into religion until a stint volunteering in the pediatric AIDS ward at Harlem Hospital changed her life and led her to enroll at Union Theological Seminary. Before coming to Princeton, she spent 12 years in a similar post at the University of Chicago, where she says there was not nearly as much going on, religiously, as she has found at Princeton.  

The dean believes that interest in religion has been growing for some time now, not just on college campuses but in the wider world as well. But, she says, “I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘religion.’ I’d say ‘spirituality.’ I talk to so many people who say,   ‘I’m not religious, but I’m really spiritual.’ And that’s great.” If Boden has a single overarching goal, it is to make it possible for students to follow their spiritual convictions, wherever they might lead.  

Despite all the activity on campus, Boden has only a rough idea of the religious composition of the student body. Of the religiously inclined, Christians of one denomination or another are clearly still in a majority. Jewish students are believed to make up about 10 to 12 percent of the undergraduate body, which would make it one of the smallest Jewish communities in the Ivy League. Campus religious leaders believe that between 200 and 300 students are Muslim. But because the University no longer asks about students’ religious identification, no one knows for sure.  

Princeton has taken historic steps to recognize two religious groups that have been growing rapidly on campus, creating chaplaincy positions to serve Muslim and Hindu students. This year, Sohaib Sultan, the amiable author of The Koran for Dummies, became Princeton’s first full-time coordinator of Muslim life (succeeding the part-time chaplain, Khalid Latif). Princeton also recently hired Vineet Chander as the first coordinator of Hindu life, in a half-time, one-year pilot program. Chander isn’t certain, but he thinks his might be the only such position in the United States. “This is such an opportunity for the Hindu community in America,” he says.  

When Manav Lalwani ’09 arrived as a freshman, he was one of three Hindu students actively pursuing the faith. Their weekly satsang — the Hindu devotional service — at Murray-Dodge had been held each Sunday morning, which is “not the best time if you wish to attract college students,” Lalwani says. But through activities like Hindu Awareness Week and the wise decision to move the satsang to Sunday night, the group now attracts 50 or 60 people for major events.

Chander is excited to be working with the group. Typically, Hindu clerics train from a very early age to be ritual priests. Chander sees himself more as a pastoral counselor. He does plan a weekly class to study the Bhagavad Gita. Among his first priorities is making sure that Dining Services understands the importance of vegetarianism. “This is not a dietary preference,” he says. “For some people, this is an absolute requirement.” He organized a festival in the Chapel to celebrate Diwali, which is also known as the Festival of Lights and celebrates the triumph of light over darkness in each of us. The celebration, held last month, marked the first time a Hindu festival had been commemorated in the Chapel.

Muslim students also have been gratified by changes that help them observe their faith. Over the summer, a footbath was installed at Murray-Dodge so students could perform their ritual washing before prayer in the building. When a time was set aside for women to use the campus climbing wall without men present, it drew a small but very appreciative group of Muslim women. Wasim Shiliwala ’09, president of the Muslim Students Association, likes the fact that following the Muslims’ jummah (prayer service) on Fridays, the Frist Campus Center makes a point of serving sandwiches with halal meat. Halal meat is available at most dining facilities.  

Perhaps the most significant mark of progress has been the hiring of Sultan, who, before he came to Princeton, traveled the world trying to educate Muslims in France, Britain, and other countries about how the faith is practiced in the United States. “The hardships Muslims face in Europe are much greater than the ones American Muslims do,” he says. “When you’re marginalized in a society, the way Muslims are in Europe, it’s difficult to avoid fundamentalist values. Whereas in America, we have the luxury of speaking about Islam in a very sophisticated way.”

Sultan grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis, where his father worked as director of education for the North American Islamic Society. The Muslim community there was vibrant and proud, determined to show its best side so far from its spiritual home, though even as a boy, Sultan was aware of a “perception problem about Muslims in America. We weren’t seen as American.” When Sultan was 10, his father took a job in Mecca and the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was shocked to see Muslims taking their faith for granted and sometimes debasing it by lying and cheating.  

Sultan returned to the United States and spent the last two years of high school in Charlottesville, where his older sister was attending the University of Virginia. One day, someone drew a picture of Saddam Hussein and left it on his desk. Another time he came to class to find his teacher furiously scrubbing away the words “sand nigger,” which someone had written on the blackboard. Sultan recounts these stories without bitterness. All of these experiences outlined a career path: He would try to serve as a bridge, linking the two cultures. “Islam is not equated with a beautiful spiritual tradition that represents one-fifth of the world’s population, but is rather associated with a politicized version of extremism,” he says. “I know from working with young Muslims that a lot of them feel wary about even expressing their identity.”

After Sept. 11, “what happened at a lot of university campuses was the phenomenon of closeted Muslims, especially at elite universities,” says politics professor Amaney Jamal, who is a practicing Muslim and the only faculty member to wear a hijab. “They felt — or were told to feel by their parents — that it wouldn’t be a smart thing to identify as Muslim.”  

Celene Lizzio ’08 tested Princeton’s tolerance when, midway through her undergraduate years, she decided to veil herself. Raised in rural Pennsylvania by a Methodist mother and Catholic father, she had been a Catholic altar server. “My heroes were medieval women saints,” she says.  

In the spring of her sophomore year at Princeton, Lizzio went off to study at the American University in Cairo; she remained in the city the following year, converted to Islam, and began to cover herself. “Wearing a full covering can be very pragmatic and spiritually rewarding,” she says. “It’s a mobile and semiprivate space for the cultivation of awareness and intellect, not to overlook the ease and speed with which one gets out the door in the morning!”

She makes some compromises. “You have to be sensitive to the people around you,” she says. That’s why, when she taught last year at an elementary school in Princeton, she went to the school without a veil. Nor does she wear a veil when she visits New York — “out of sensitivity that it may be severely misunderstood,” she explains. “But around Princeton, I felt that people were more open-minded and wouldn’t automatically jump to the first image they might pull off the news.”

Christian athletes gather each week for "Game Time," a weekly meeting with prayer, Scripture-reading, and a competition, thrown in for fun. The sessions are sponsored by the student group Athletes in Action.
Christian athletes gather each week for "Game Time," a weekly meeting with prayer, Scripture-reading, and a competition, thrown in for fun. The sessions are sponsored by the student group Athletes in Action.
Frank Wojciechowski

Though observant students give the University high marks for accommodating religious belief and practice, some sense that Princeton has not been equally enthusiastic in its support for all groups — that in a generally liberal community like Princeton, it’s easy for the majority to forget that there are conservative sensibilities that deserve to be heard. Sherif Girgis ’08, now a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, met last year with Boden to express his concern that the “liberal” side of religious and moral questions seemed to get a fuller expression at ORL-sponsored events. He cites, for example, a 2006 panel called “The Religious Right’s Obsession with Gay Sex,” which featured four panelists — none of whom spoke for the conservative side. Girgis, a Catholic, stresses that he is not for censorship — he asks only to see his side presented fairly and intelligently. Girgis says he feels satisfied that Boden took his arguments seriously.  

Like some other students, Jonathan Keller ’09, the PEF president, says he felt uncomfortable when, during Orientation, he was required to sit through a presentation of “Sex on Saturday Night,” a role-playing skit designed to caution students about sexual coercion and violence. “They don’t really give a believable Christian character in this, someone who’s abstinent like a normal person,” he complains. He also wonders why, during Opening Exercises, the University has edited out of the Princeton prayer “any words that indicate we have a Christian background.” Keller is the son of two Lutheran pastors. Coming from a Christian high school in Minnesota, he did not find it easy adjusting to life at Princeton. “Living life as a Christian here can be difficult,” he says. “Seeing all the stuff that happens on [Prospect Street] — the hook-up culture, the people down the hall who had to go to McCosh with alcohol poisoning. Those types of things were very disturbing to me.”  

Members of an evangelical group called Faith and Action had to fight for recognition as an official student organization a few years ago; it was originally turned down because of its affiliation to an outside organization, Christian Union, that was founded to support “sweeping spiritual transformation” at the Ivy schools and had not been approved as a campus ministry. The group won recognition in 2005, after it had turned to the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for help. Today, it holds retreats and Bible-study groups, separating men and women in the latter.  

At the same time, some Jewish students say the University dragged its feet, until last spring, in granting chaplaincy status to Eitan Webb, the Chabad rabbi. Webb arrived in Princeton in 2002, when Chabad groups were popping up on campuses around the country. For his first Sabbath dinner he had exactly five guests. By last year Chabad was routinely attracting 50 students to the house it bought near the campus with help from parents and alumni.  

The University argued that the Center for Jewish Life was created precisely to unify and support all Jewish students at Princeton; by this reasoning, Chabad might splinter the Jewish community. “I think there was some concern about Chabad’s ability to function within a liberal institution,” says Arthur Ewenczyk ’09, who served as Chabad president during that time. He says the main attraction at the Chabad house is its warmth. In the end, Webb believes he got the chaplaincy because Boden and Tilghman came to Sabbath dinner on separate occasions and were impressed by what they saw. “In Hebrew they say, ‘You can’t compare audio to video,’” says Webb. “When somebody comes, and they actually see what’s going on, it changes their perspective.” Boden explains: “They meet all the criteria we ask of any religious organization we approve: that you report to a broader superstructure; that you abide by the institution’s policies; that whoever you have as your campus representative to be the affiliated chaplain has the training requisite for that tradition.”

Prayer and observance   aren’t always the main attraction for those who flock to Princeton’s religious student groups. The CJL, for example, sponsors a wide range of activities — everything from the Mitzvah 5K Run to a visit by a professional Israeli folk dancer to a “Sushi in the Sukkah” event during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. And that raises a broad question about much religious practice at Princeton: Just how far should religions go in selling themselves to young seekers? At virtually all the religious gatherings on campus, games abound: Athletes in Action’s meetings are even called Game Time, and begin with a recap of the week’s sports highlights. Before prayers and a brief sermon there’s a short physical competition — a tug of war or leg wrestling or, in one misguided activity, something called the Dairy and Citrus Challenge, which involved downing large quantities of milk and orange juice and then racing. “It was a horrible idea,” concedes Scharf, the sprint football player.

But many gatherings emphasize serious conversation. Lalwani, a leader of Princeton’s Hindu community, has been a prime mover of efforts to spark discussion about religious life on campus. Last year he was behind Performing the Sacred, an evening of singing and dancing in the Chapel performed by 10 different student groups. Some were religious, some not, but they all developed a performance that embodied their idea of the sacred. This year Lalwani was planning another performance piece, the I Believe Campaign. Everyone on campus will be invited to fill in blank forms reading “I believe ...” and then place them in boxes around campus. Lalwani and a team were expecting to project some on the sides of campus buildings at night for a week or so after Thanksgiving.  

Lalwani is a fellow of the Religious Life Council, which was created in 2001 to foster conversation among members of religious faiths. The council is composed of about 30 students from a variety of religions who gain membership by application. Last year (as of October, the new fellows had not been chosen) the group included a follower of the Indian religion Jainism, a Baha’i, a Sikh, seven Jews, seven Muslims, and nine Christians. “We always have someone who describes himself as a ‘seeker,’” says Raushenbush, who leads the group. “That’s an important element in the mix.”

They meet for dinner — vegetarian kosher — on Monday nights to discuss religious and moral questions, like gay marriage and abortion. “The students are so curious about each other,” says Raushenbush. Each month the group also hosts a forum called “What Matters to Me and Why” in which a prominent member of the University community — Tilghman once visited — talks on that subject. Every member of the RLC gets a grant of $1,000 to be used for a trip of spiritual significance. For example, the group’s one Baha’i member, Jon Gandomi *08, used that money to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace, in Tehran, of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i.  

Similar conversations take place in other religious forums. At the MSA Fast-a-Thon in September, Sultan gives a moving talk about the moral dimensions of hunger. A few days later he hosts, along with Rabbi Roth, the second annual Muslim-Jewish iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. (The Muslim students earlier had invited Hindu students to a similar interfaith iftar.) The 80 or so students who show up find, in the middle of each table, a sheet of paper with a series of questions for discussion. As it turns out, no such prompting is necessary. The conversation flows easily. The Muslims are nearing the end of Ramadan, while for Jews, the fast day of Yom Kippur is approaching.  

The students begin by comparing the meaning and practice of fasting, among other things.  

“Do you eat any particular food when you break your fast?” Parween Ebrahim wants to know. She’s a graduate student in English, from Bahrain.  

“Mom makes pancakes,” says Zvi Smith ’09, with a shrug.  

“I’ve got lots of questions,” Ebrahim warns. “If you get tired ... ”

But no one seems the least bit tired. A giddy energy possesses them. Must Jewish women cover their hair? Do men and women enter mosques through separate doors? And it isn’t just Muslims asking questions of Jews and the other way round. In explaining their customs to the others, students from the same religious tradition find themselves learning from each other.  

“It’s very moving for me to see all of us Muslims, from such different places, sharing the same faith,” says Ebrahim.  

But it is Saud Al-Thani ’11, an environmental engineer from Qatar who, in summing up the iftar, also provides a neat summary of religious life at Princeton: “Our two nations are cousins,” he says to Jewish students at the meal. “We should remember how close the two were in the past. The differences are really important too: They make us what we are. But we have a lot more in common than we usually think.” 

Freelance writer Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.