Lonely Men and Women of Faith: The Experience of Religious Students at Stanford

Lonely Men and Women of Faith: The Experience of Religious Students at Stanford

In his theological essay The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposes two categories of mankind, rooted in the two creation narratives found in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. The first type of man—“Adam the first”—is majestic and utilitarian. His quest is “to harness and dominate the elemental natural forces” in pursuit of dignity and excellence. The other Adam does not seek to master nature. “Adam the second” is submissive, humble, and, most of all, existentially lonely.

Stanford, perhaps more than any other university, attracts students resembling the Adam of Genesis 1. The archetypal Stanford student possesses a “great drive for creative activity and immeasurable resources for the realization of this goal.” Far fewer Stanford students fit the mold of Adam the second. This is the student that hastily says grace before each meal, or the one that sheepishly declines alcohol at a party, or the one that works on Saturday nights because he cannot work during the day. These individuals are acutely aware of their separateness from the broader community, just as the Adam of Genesis 2 is existentially aware of his “separateness from nature.” Indeed, for many of them—for many of us, I should say, since I am a religious Jew—loneliness is more than just an ontological phenomenon. It is often a tangible and inescapable part of everyday life as a Stanford student.

The first reason for this loneliness is quite straightforward: there is an astounding paucity of religious undergraduates at Stanford, at least when it comes to traditional Jews and Muslims.

Though the undergraduate student body comprises just over 7,000 students, one can count on one, maybe two hands the number of religious Jewish undergraduates. The entire freshman class has just one student who keeps kosher and observes shabbat (this is me). Ira Hall, one of the first black students to be admitted to Stanford, recalls the early years after Stanford’s integration: “If I saw another black person, we’d stop and have a holiday.” So it is with religious Jews on campus.

The story is similar when it comes to religious Muslim students. Fatima, a religious Muslim student from Lebanon, claims there is “essentially no community at all” at Stanford (name and country changed to protect privacy). Fatima remembers her first Friday communal prayer service upon arriving on campus: “When I walked into the room, I was shocked. There were only men there, and most of them were 30- or 40-years old. I was literally the only woman. A few of the men were students, but most came from surrounding areas to pray—and none of the men spoke to me.” Fatima returned to Friday prayers a few times, but she now prefers to pray individually.

Stanford places a great deal of emphasis on building robust ethnic communities. How many other universities have dorms dedicated to fostering Black or Latino or Asian culture and community? But when it comes to strong traditionally-religious communities, save for a somewhat-larger Christian contingent, Stanford is conspicuously lacking, especially when compared to other top tier universities (i.e. most Ivy League schools).

Size of community is the beginning, but by no means the end, of challenges that religious students face. Stanford as an institution, according to Rachel (name changed to protect privacy), “checks all of the boxes on paper, but could do much more” to help religious students.

Rachel, a Jewish student who identifies as modern orthodox, recounts how the university’s meal plan policy led her to move off campus last year. “Because I keep strictly kosher, I really only ate dining hall meals a few times a week, at FloMo [where Kosher dinner is served three times a week]. And, because I used to be a vegetarian and the kosher dinners are mostly meat-based, I couldn’t really eat much there anyways. As a result, I was spending a ton of money cooking for myself, and I was paying thousands of dollars for meals that I couldn’t eat.” Rachel hoped the University would understand her dilemma and let her waive her meal plan. “I wanted to keep living on campus, so I explained my situation to Stanford, but they were not very helpful. They told me that, if I wanted guaranteed housing, I had to be on a meal plan, even if I wasn’t using it. Eventually I got so fed up that I just moved to an apartment off campus.”

Rachel recognizes that the school does provide religious Jews with some important resources: “I’m really grateful that the school gives us kosher food, and that we have two Jewish institutions on campus [hillel and chabad], and that the professors often do their best to give extensions because of Jewish holidays. But there’s still a lot more that the school could do.”

The University’s efforts to accommodate religious Muslims are also a mixed bag. Spring finals coincide with Ramadan this year, but that’s not what worries Fatima the most: “Next year, spring finals fall on Eid Al Fitr, which is the most important time of the year for me to be home with my family. I want to go home, but I can’t miss finals. I asked the school if they could help me to figure out a solution, but they told me that it wasn’t up to them and that the professors may or may not be able to let me take earlier finals.”

Fatima acknowledges that “the school takes care of [them] in some ways” by providing Halal food and Suhoor boxes so that students who fast on Ramadan do not have to go get food before the fast starts at sunrise each day. But, like Rachel, she thinks the school can do more. “Going home to spend the one holiday I have with my family—is that too much to ask?”

It may be unreasonable to expect a secular institution like Stanford to fully accommodate each student’s religious needs. With that said, Stanford goes far beyond the letter of the law when it comes to ethnic or racial diversity, but it does little to go out of its way to help religious students. Furthermore, the inevitable challenges faced by religious students at a secular university are especially difficult at Stanford because of the absence of large, sturdy communities to lend support. It is, for example, much easier to fast for Ramadan during finals or miss class because of a Jewish holiday if many other students are doing the same.

When it comes to day-to-day interactions between secular and religious students, questions of religious practice and belief are oftentimes avoided. “People are too afraid to ask me about my practices,” says Fatima, who wears a headscarf (hijab) and prays five times a day. “But they have no problem making assumptions about what I will and won’t do. People will say, ‘well of course you don’t go to parties.’ What? I never said I don’t go to parties. People just assume that I don’t because they don’t bother to ask.”

Rachel also wishes religious topics weren’t taboo. “It’s obvious that everyone I interact with on a daily basis knows I’m religious, but no one ever really asks about it, except for my closest friends. People always say that diversity is important, but I wish we actually talked about what makes us different.”

Politics can also be a sensitive subject for religious students. Fanny, an Evangelical student, recounts a conversation she had with her Catholic roommate about religion and its application to politics. “As soon as we began the subject, both of us glanced at the door, which was open. In a moment of unspoken agreement, I went over and closed the door.” Fanny thinks this incident sums up the challenging parts of being religious on campus. “For a university that champions free and open discourse, it is ironic that there are some opinions that just never make their way out of closed doors.”

When religious students’ beliefs do make their way out of closed doors, they are often met with confusion and incredulity. Carolyn, a religious Catholic, says that her beliefs “often stump” her secular friends. “People have a hard time understanding that my beliefs are genuine and not just ritualistic. For example, when I tell people that I believe the eucharist becomes the body of Christ, they’ll say ‘I thought no one really believes that anymore.’” Still, Carolyn notes that many aspects of her religiosity “have positive effects on [her] relationships.” Carolyn believes that “people still generally understand someone saying ‘I have to go to church’ as a sign of positive character traits, and a lot of non-Catholics have asked to come to Mass with me.”

In outlining the place of religious Jews in secular society and among their Christian compatriots, Rabbi Soloveitchik (the author of “The Lonely Man of Faith”) borrows the contradictory phrase that Abraham uses to identify himself to the Hittites in Genesis 23: “I am a stranger and a resident (ger v’toshav)”. This phrase, I would argue, also describes the unique position of religious students at Stanford, who are at once both integrated into and separate from the broader Stanford community.

Perhaps this duality is unavoidable. In some form or another, religious individuals will always be separate from their secular peers, and Stanford is no exception. Nevertheless, we ought to strive for a community where religious students feel less like strangers and more like brethren. “How good it is when people dwell together in unity.”

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