Benjamin Dunaief lived in Israel for a year, where worship influences much of the culture. The Jewish student said there were prayer services for most of the day during Yom Kippur, a solemn day-long religious fast, including a service at the Western Wall to break the fast.
The sophomore visual and media arts major’s holiday experience at the college couldn’t be more different.
“I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I can’t eat today,’” Dunaief said. “I go to classes, I’m hungry and I’m in classes, and then afterwards there’s no services available so I just have to wait until the break fast.”
When it comes to religion and spirituality at the college, students like Dunaief can feel lonely. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Campus Chaplain Harrison Blum said he thinks Emerson is a secular campus, something some students see as an obstacle to practicing their faith.
Dunaief thought to join Emeron's chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, during his freshman year, but looked elsewhere for a spirtual community because he didn’t like the lack of religious event programming. Instead, he attends Hillel celebrations at other colleges with his Jewish Emerson friends.
Sofia Barrett, co-vice president of Hillel at Emerson and a junior visual and media arts major, said the organization hosts religious and cultural events to accommodate both practicing and non-practicing Jews. She said Hillel has a new executive board this year, prepared to provide better events for both religious and cultural Jewish students.
“Hillel focuses on cultural events more so than religious events because of sheer interest, attendance, resources, and lack of appropriate space to hold religious events,” Barrett said. “We always provide information on nearby religious services to students who desire to attend them.”
Erick Breckenridge, vice president of marketing for the organization Emerson Christian Fellowship, said student turnout is high for major Christian religious events, like Ash Wednesday, and he wishes more of these students would engage with ECF on a regular basis.
The junior visual and media arts major said he grew up in a Presbyterian Christian home, but drifted away from the church when he came to the college. After realizing that his religion is a core value system for him, he said, Breckenridge sought membership in ECF and now uses his experience of losing his faith to connect with other speculative Christians on campus.
Blum said that while membership and retention is important for religious organizations, it is not necessarily a failure if some students only come to events observing major holidays.
“For some students that is what they want,” he said. “The permission to attend those holidays without the expectation that they become members I think is a good thing.”
Freshman Ann Zhang, a Muslim visual and media arts major, said she has visited a few mosques around Boston, but has never gone inside.
“If we had a community or a Muslim student body, if we know each other, I think that’s really a better place for me to more comfortably go to a mosque here,” Zhang said.
She said that the probable reason why she has not met many other Muslim students is that people don’t usually talk about their religion.
Blum said he’s made efforts to accommodate Muslim students: he purchased prayer rugs, pitchers and basins for ablution, and a sign indicating the direction of Mecca in the Reflection Room.
Brian Indrelie, Protestant chaplain and ECF advisor, said the problem over the past few years has been a lack of full-time spirituality staff. He said all the chaplains worked part-time, and also work at other schools or institutions, so they’re not on campus to connect with students on a daily basis. Emerson’s other chaplains and advisors are Kristelle Angelli, Catholic chaplain, and Jake Freedman, Jewish life and Hillel advisor.
“I'm very thankful that the college invested in bringing [Blum] here and [in] trying to bring more resources and work to what we do,” Indrelie said.
Blum said he’s heard students’ concerns about spirituality and is taking action to resolve these issues. He’s developing new programs, like an interfaith hike and other regular community meetups, to help students share and learn from each other, remove misconceptions of religious traditions, and encourage students to foster or find their faith.
Blum said he wants students to share inspiration, search for truth, and struggle for meaning. He stressed that he wants students to reach out to him, whatever they’re exploring, connecting, or struggling with to start a dialogue.
“I am here,” Blum said. “I am listening, and I will respond.”