Keeping Faith: Skidmore Religious Life Thrives in a Time of Tension
Skidmore is not exactly known for its religious student life. As a campus, the general culture tends more towards the secular than religious practice. Below the surface, however, Skidmore has a small but vibrant religious community.
"At the beginning of the Fall, I just wrote on this large piece of paper [hanging up in Wilson chapel], 'How do you answer the question: Are you religious?'" said Parker Diggory, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Skidmore. "And you can just look at this range of answers that don't easily just fall into [a category]. There's this wonderful range of answers from the Skidmore community that shows there's a lot more going on than I think some people would suspect."
Diggory's job is multi-faceted. She works as a part of the Campus Life and Engagement team and with the Office of Student Diversity Programming, the Office of Student Leadership, The Office of Community Service, and many others. She also ensures that all students have access to religious and spiritual resources. “I’m particularly responsible for helping students connect with religion and spirituality in whichever way they want to while they are here, whether it’s through a club, whether it’s through a community in town, if it’s by just getting a suggestion on something to study," she said.
Skidmore Hillel, one of the faith-based clubs Diggory referred to, is one of Skidmore's most active religious clubs, with Skidmore students' most prevalent self-identified religion being Judaism (according to the Skidmore website, approximately 20 percent of Skidmore students are Jewish,). Despite this, involvement in Hillel events ranges dramatically from event to event, with a large majority of participation being in cultural events.
Even so, Jesse Epstein ‘19, one of Hillel’s co-presidents, loves being a member of Skidmore's Jewish student community. "I like that we know each other well enough to care what happened during each other's past week," he said, referring to the weekly tradition of personal reflections on the week at Shabbat services. "It's a small community where [everybody] knows everybody."
Christy Bottomley ‘18, a small group and ignite team leader for Skidmore's Christian Fellowship, Skidmore's Christian community, also continues to enjoy her time participating in religious life at Skidmore. "They want to make you a close-knit group of people because of shared experiences, while also maintaining an openness to the rest of the campus," she said. "They just drew me in in a really positive way, because I felt really lost on campus [before I joined], and that was the first time I really felt home at Skidmore."
There is no doubt that forming a community among any religious group is impactful, but it is more challenging for students like Hatoon Moushasha ’19. Moushasha is Muslim and there is no specific club on campus for Muslim students. “I think that one of the students should look into starting a club that’s an official Muslim student club,” she said. "I would like to see more recognition of Muslim students on campus." Even so, Moushasha, who is also on the E-Board of Hayat, Skidmore's Non-Western Culture club, understands why this would be difficult on a campus like Skidmore's. " The number of students who are actually Muslim is very small," she said. "I don’t know if that would actually function.”
It is a problem that Diggory also understands. She said that Skidmore's club system is structured in a way that students are the ones designating clubs for themselves, instead of the administration designating clubs for students. Although this system works in forming clubs based solely on student interest, it can sometimes place a lot of stress on a small number of people in the case of smaller clubs. In cases where the members are a minority by nature, this burden may be unfair. Diggory added that if students like Moushasha did ever want to form a Muslim student club, her office would be able to assist them. In addition, her office has already helped Hayat plan a Muslim student dinner this semester.
"I think this semester has been great as a reaction to what has happened, " Moushasha said about the dinner, which was organized explicitly as a way to build community between Muslim students in response to recent political events. The effects of Donald Trump's presidency and particularly his new islamophobic immigration policy have been of relevance to a number of religious groups across campus.
"I think it might be a possibility that... people [who] were less involved are starting to turn to faith a little more after Trump's presidency, and the evidence I have for that is that at this past Shabbat dinner [the last one at the time, the first one of the semester] we had over 100 people, which is the largest Shabbat dinner I can remember," Epstein remarked. Although there were other factors at play, including the dinner coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Epstein still thinks that the timing was notable.
Bottomley also feels that there has been a change in her club. "We were able to get a discussion going that was intensely personal for a lot of our students," she said. " We have several people who are international and to whom this was a deep concern. It meant that the people in our group who were not going to be directly affected suddenly had to think about things from a drastically different perspective."
Diggory added that there seems to be a recent movement, partially in response to everything that has happened, to promote education and inclusion. “I would say that there has been an increased interest in interfaith work. There’s been an increased interest in showing solidarity across religious lines, students of different faiths showing up for each other, and awareness on campus of incidents [of religious hate acts] in the broader community and across the country," she said.
This desire is reflected in many ways. Hillel recently added E-Board positions for Interfaith Coordinator and Social Action Outreach, and Bottomley expressed Christian Fellowship's desire to organize events themed both around interfaith education and social action, especially in relation to refugees. Epstein also expressed a desire to foster conversation about political issues affecting both Jewish and non-Jewish people through education and discussion groups. Diggory echoed this sentiment.
“What I’m hoping is that we can broaden and make the conversations [more complex] around religious identity and politics, social justice and tease a little bit more of the complex reality that exists within,” said Diggory.
These issues are never simple and perhaps that is why, in the view of Skidmore's religious community, they are so important to address.