Before coming to Wesleyan, I had never been asked about what my beliefs were. I attended a Jewish day school from the time I was three years old until I was in 12th grade, but bizarrely had never been asked to specifically explain what I believed.
Religion is perceived by many to be a taboo topic on college campuses. A Pew Research Center article from April reported that almost 50 percent of U.S. adults rarely or never speak of religion outside their families, and one in four people favor avoiding the discussion with those whom they disagree. Additionally, more than one-fourth of college freshmen don’t identify with any religion, according to UCLA’s annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s 2014 survey. Due to these statistics, I assumed that going into college, that I would likely not speak as openly about my Judaism as I did in high school. Yet in the mere two weeks that I’ve been on campus, I’ve found that I’ve already had several discussions with other students about this very topic.
Last Friday night, for instance, I was eating dinner at the Bayit when I was asked by another student to describe what my beliefs are. I was beginning to explain that I am Modern Orthodox when she asked me the question again, “But what do YOU believe in?” I was taken aback, since I had attended a school where everyone more or less shared the same beliefs. Not completely sure what to say, I gave a feeble answer about what some of my traditions are. I listened to other students give their responses and realized that, despite sharing the same religion and, for some of them, the same affiliation, we gave very different answers.
It wasn’t until I returned to my dorm later that night that I came to appreciate the question I was asked. I never thought about what my personal, specific beliefs were. I came to find that now is the perfect time to do so. While people do tend to avoid discussing religion, the conversation is one that should really take place. College is a time for students to develop their own opinions. If a subject is constantly avoided, then people can’t truly form their own outlook on it. While I have been able to engage in multiple conversations on campus about my religion, it still seems to be a topic of discussion of which people generally tend to steer clear.
Despite everything the University does to make it manageable, even just being religious on a college campus, let alone speaking out about it, can be extremely difficult. I come from a kosher home, and even before I arrived on campus, I was already in contact with the Bon Appétit staff about the dietary restrictions involved in my keeping a kosher diet. They regularly check in with me to see how I am handling it. While this does make eating meals easier and more comfortable, it is something that certainly takes time to get accustomed to. Explaining to my peers the reasons why I only eat certain foods, however, has offered me a surprising degree of comfort. Studies have shown that doing something that feels closer to home can help relieve homesickness. In the short period I have lived here, talking about aspects of my religion such as keeping kosher, which has always been a huge part of my life, has made Wesleyan feel more like a home to me.
It makes sense that students often shy away from the topic of religion. It’s an undeniably controversial and complicated subject. It can get awkward and make people feel uneasy. Yet it can also make people discover new things about themselves, like what is it in life that they truly and personally believe in. You don’t have to be religious to discuss it, and I know that when I talk about Judaism, the last thing I am trying to do is convert anybody, which is unfortunately something those who enthusiastically and openly discuss religion are often accused of. Religion, tradition, and spirituality are important topics to many people, and students at a diverse institution like Wesleyan should embrace such discussion.
Miriam Zenilman is a member of the class of 2020.