Chaplains host State of Religion
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the University’s chapels, which were founded in 1955, the Program in Religious Studies hosted a panel discussion on Thursday titled “The State of Religion at Brandeis and its Future.” Four of the University chaplains — Protestant Chaplain Rev. Matthew Carriker, Pastoral Associate for Catholic and Spiritual Life Allison Cornelisse, Interim Muslim Chaplain Maryam Sharrieff and Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Elyse Winick ’86 — spoke to about 25 students and faculty members.
Winick began by presenting a brief history of the three chapels — Berlin Chapel, a Jewish synagogue; Bethlehem Chapel, a Catholic church; and Harlan Chapel, a Protestant church. Winick argued that the most significant change to the University’s religious life since its founding is its increased diversity. When the chapels were built, she said, the University’s founders could have safely assumed that most students coming to Brandeis would have been either Jewish, Protestant or Catholic, but as America has grown more diverse and the University has increased its international student population, Muslim and Dharmic faith students have grown in number, necessitating the creation of new prayer spaces on campus. Currently, the Muslim Students Association and other Muslim community members gather in a Muslim Prayer Suite in the basement of the Usdan Student Center, and Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jain students share a Dharmic prayer center in the Shapiro Campus Center.
Winick said that even since her time as an undergraduate, the University has experienced changes, such as an increase in its undergraduate population by around 600 students, growth in diversity — by her estimate, around 85 percent of the campus was Jewish when she was an undergraduate — and a larger percentage of the observant Jewish population at Brandeis now coming from more orthodox sects. She called the annual Yom Kippur Break the Fast event established by former Uni-versity President Frederick Lawrence “a banner of the University’s Jewish identity, even as it tries to figure out what its Jewish identity actually is.”
Cornelisse, who assumed the chaplaincy last April after the departure of interim priest Father Dan Moloney, who was himself filling in after Father Walther Cuenin left the University last January for unspecified health concerns, spoke next. She described her presence as “an experiment,” since the Catholic chaplaincy has always been held by a priest, and she said that finding a new priest has been difficult, due in part to a shortage of priests currently in the Catholic church. She said that she’s been able to bring priests from Boston College to campus in the interim and noted that the University’s Catholic community includes people from the Waltham area not affiliated with the University, which creates a broader sense of community. “The Catholic church has been in a time of transition as it is, in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and the priest shortage,” she said. “That, I’ve noticed, has been an influence on the conversations that we’ve had this year.”
Sharrieff then spoke, describing herself as “the new kid on the block” and saying that while she ostensibly serves the undergraduate Muslim Students Association primarily, faculty, staff and an overwhelming number of graduate students come to Muslim prayer services and events. By Sharrieff’s estimate, around 200 graduate students and 50 undergraduates attend regularly. Sharrieff’s uncle attended the University and was part of “Ford Hall one,” in her words, and she said that she hoped more interfaith collaboration would be possible in the future, saying that “there’s so many wrongs going on in the United States right now, and I just feel like Brandeis needs to be a place that’s at the forefront of making a change.”
Last to speak was Carriker. He emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue as an important positive for the community. At Brandeis, Protestant students are a minority, which Carriker said causes some students to need to explain their faith to others, often for the first time. Carriker said that the broader Christian world is going through a “seismic shift” that tends to happen every 500 years, in part due to decreased church attendance, saying “people are increasingly interested in ‘spirituality,’ and ‘religion’ is a bad word.” He pointed to interest in the regular mindfulness retreats he runs as evidence.
The talk then opened to attendants. A student asked the chaplaincy on their thoughts about space allocation on campus, to which Winick responded by saying that the community had to recognize a difference between what they’d like and what is likely to happen. “As a team, we are not comfortable with the fact that [the placement of] all of the worship spaces…give a sense of hierarchical prioritization.” She cited the placement of the Muslim prayer suite in the Usdan basement and the separation of the Dharmic prayer center from the three chapels as evidence, saying she often needs to direct students who were unaware the Muslim suite even existed. “It feels wrong for the other sacred spaces to be elsewhere. … That, I think, is a much larger challenge than the University is going to be equipped to grapple with, and probably not at the top of the University’s priorities to resolve.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Chaplaincy hosted the event.