September 22, 2022

FRIEDMAN | Religious Life: A Rare Place of Acceptance at Cornell

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Compared to the derisive, cutthroat nature of many Cornell organizations, Cornell’s religious community serves as a productive, inclusive force on campus for secular and religious students alike. Various spiritual groups and institutions provide uplifting gathering spaces for students craving a sense of belonging and community, benefiting students from both ultra-religious and secular backgrounds. As an attendee of Shabbat dinners and an occasional associate to the Mulsim community, I have experienced part, though not all, of Cornell’s religious scene.

While business clubs, political clubs and Greek organizations are exclusive to the core, religious life is the most prominent, inclusive area available to the masses of Cornell. The private and sometimes contemptuous status of exclusive organizations is at times legitimate, pushing prospective members to show dedication and self-discipline. 

However, in many cases, these processes serve to shoehorn an already talented student body into specific boxes, simplistically dividing equally capable students into more and less “desirable” tiers. Passing the remarkably high bar of the Admissions office be damned, a high portion of social or extracurricular outlets drive students to seek absolute perfection, or more realistically, the mirage of it. Even candidates “perfect” on paper are regularly rejected in order to maintain a single-digit club acceptance rate or in favor of more “connected” candidates. It probably goes without saying that no employer can tell two Cornell groups apart on a resume or interview. To my friends in those organizations: enjoy strutting around campus before your glory days are over.

Cornell’s religious organizations, contrarily, support all lost souls that walk through their doors. All are welcome to Friday night’s Shabbat dinner hosted by Chabad or Hillel on campus or the interfaith dinners hosted by Cornell’s Muslim community. The Christian community hosts Sunday mass and various Christian groups hold their own events. During the Holi festival, the Hindu community also hosts campus-wide events. In any of these spaces, no résumés are required and there are no prerequisites for coffee chats or “connections.” In fact, as long as a visitor dresses the part and is respectful, no matter their religion or background, they will always be welcomed as a fellow — not an outsider.

Primarily, these shared meals under a common roof provide a sense of belonging for both returning students and students getting acquainted with Cornell’s way of life. These religious spaces provide a relaxed and familial environment, an effect that a sterile dining hall or restaurant simply can not replicate under any circumstance. Second to that, these opportunities provide an easily accessible manner to “branch out” and meet people with cool life experiences. Personally, I have made some great friends, deepened my relationships with others and exchanged valuable words of advice during Friday night Shabbat dinners.

Moreover, breaking bread with friends and relatives is a tradition dating back millennia. For all of the modern aspects of campus life, ranging from the new construction on North Campus to the technological innovations redefining the fundamental value of education, maintaining tradition whenever possible is to the benefit of students. As a naive underclassman, it is easy to lose hope. But if generations of predecessors passing through the same halls of Chabad and Annabel Taylor Hall can graduate from Cornell successfully with the guidance of the spiritual notion that all will work out in the end, so can you.

The travesty of the pandemic, among many other losses, was shuttering these gatherings for some time. I cannot comment on that period because thank God, those dreary months were before my time, but I cannot even imagine the crippling sense of isolation students a year or two above me faced in all aspects. 

Clearly, there are many students who do not identify with the major religions present on campus. But the religious spaces can still create an opening and a mental anchor or point of belonging for secular students that are interested in experiencing various cultures. Of course, some secular students will have no intention of associating with these groups. Therefore, this column is a recommendation to any student feeling lost — not an endorsement of a particular religious group or belief.

On a crazy campus with a lot going on and limited options for escape, Cornell’s vibrant religious life provides an unparalleled outlet. Even if you disagree with this premise, I encourage you to find a place on campus that provides the same effect that the Jewish community has provided me. No matter your circumstances, dismiss the rejection of exclusive clubs and social organizations and find hidden opportunities.

Aaron Friedman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Honest AF runs every other Thursday this semester.