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Building Interfaith Bridges on Campus

Some 35 alumnae/i and family members crowded into a classroom in Rockefeller Hall on June 7 for a Reunion program on Jewish and Muslim Student Life at Vassar. Elizabeth Aeschlimann, the College’s Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life since 2017, began her joint presentation with Nora Zaki, who has served as Vassar’s Advisor for Muslim Student Life since earlier this year, by noting the session “wouldn’t have been possible a year ago,” adding this has been a “transformative” time on campus with the addition of the Muslim Student Life position.

Elizabeth Aeschlimann (standing), Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life, and Nora Zaki (seated, top right), Advisor for Muslim Student Life, lead a discussion for alumnae/i during Reunion.Photo: Karl Rabe

Aeschlimann showed brief videos featuring several students, including Eli Schwamm ’19, outgoing president of the Vassar Jewish Union, who said at the College he had found “a variety of perspectives on Judaism, and a path to continue to engage in Judaism that feels relevant.”

In discussing the year’s highlights, Aeschlimann said the holiday of Sukkot “presented an opportunity to open up to the whole campus.” The result was an array of 20 activities in the Sukkah hut built for the occasion that ranged from knitting to a gathering of sustainability groups to office hours with President Bradley. A large community Seder on the first night of Passover was supplemented by intimate small-table Seders hosted by students on subsequent nights.

Consistent with Schwamm’s comment about “being empowered to push the boundaries,” many of the weekly Shabbat services centered around particular themes or communities; among the examples cited were a service with Vassar Refugee Solidarity, a Marist-Vassar Shabbat, and a popular “Bring a Friend” Shabbat. Tragically, there also were vigils after the mass murders of Jews in Pittsburgh and of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, with Zaki taking the lead on the latter. On a happier note, a transgender student held a bar mitzvah in recognition of his new name.

Zaki noted that the motto of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices (RSLCP), where both she and Aeschlimann work, is “joyful, balanced and focused.” She emphasized the diversity of Vassar’s Muslim community, which encompasses New Yorkers and international students, observant and non-religious Muslims, and students from a wide variety of majors and academic backgrounds. Zaki’s work with the RSLCP office has been instrumental in ensuring the development of the first Muslim prayer space on campus. Educational efforts have delved into the history of Islam in America, which extends much further back than most realize, to before the arrival of Columbus. Students were shown the documentary Prince Among Slaves, which makes it clear that the first Muslims in America were black Africans forcibly brought to America through the slave trade. On another topic, a session called “Why Do You Cover Your Hair?” featured not only Muslims, but also Jews and Sikhs, and involved both women and men who make that choice.

Zaki noted that during Ramadan, non-Muslims as well as Muslims attended the Suhoor, the predawn morning meal, hosted by the Office of Residential Life; and there was a joint Muslim-Jewish Iftar, the post-sunset evening meal, organized by the students. Off-campus, Muslim students from Bard (where Zaki also serves in a similar capacity), Marist, and Vassar met at the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association in Wappingers Falls.

During Q-and-A, two alums expressed concern about the impression that discussion of God and religion is “taboo” on the Vassar campus. Samuel Speers, Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, responded this had become the subject of a project at Vassar about the secularity of higher education. “Within higher education—at Vassar and other campuses—there’s often a default assumption that people are not religious, where these assumptions can miss the vibrancy of spiritual life that is present,” he noted.

Other alums asked about the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, and whether Jewish students at Vassar feel threatened for being pro-Israel. Aeschlimann made note of the formation of the VSA-certified organization VOICE (Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively). While acknowledging that the Israel/Palestine relationship is the subject of ongoing conversation at Vassar, she added, “I have seen respectful discussions around these issues. President Bradley has made herself very available to all members of the campus community concerned about this topic, and has been quick to address their concerns.” Both women said the role of their office is not to take positions on political issues, but rather “working to support each individual student, to ensure everyone feels safe, and to steer clear of bias.” One alum volunteered her opinion that this represented “a real change from several years ago.”

Anthony Bartolotta ’19, a recent graduate who said he identifies as neither Jewish nor Muslim, mentioned his experience of having close friends who were involved in the Vassar Jewish Union. “I want to reiterate how positive an atmosphere exists here,” he said. Another attendee, who identified himself as Jewish, commented that he felt Muslim Americans “have had a very difficult time since 9/11, and I feel it’s wonderful” that a program for Muslim students exists at Vassar.