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Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui ’86, the Muslim chaplain, came to Rensselaer from Algeria as a graduate student in psychology. He remained in the region and eventually helped open Al-Hidaya, the first mosque in Troy. Imam Sebkhaoui, too, sees change in the composition of the Muslim community.
“In the 1980s more of the Muslims were foreign students. They probably did more among themselves,” he says. “Now they are much more apparent because they are undergraduates who grew up here, much like the rest of the groups. They interact easily with the rest of the school.”
Having friends and roommates of other faiths has proved to be an important part of the Rensselaer experience. “I knew I’d end up in a room with a person who never saw a Muslim person before,’’ says Ferheen Shaikh, who also read about the Muslim group and met with members before coming to Rensselaer. “They are like my family,” she says.
Religious groups, like Rensselaer cultural organizations, bring together people of the same heritage. Muhammed Mohd Rafie Mohamad ’06, who is from Malaysia, is grateful for the support he gets on campus. More than once, he has experienced a less than welcoming reaction off campus. Recently, airport security took him into a room and questioned him for three hours.
“Once you’re on campus you don’t feel the difference,” says Mohamad, a member of the Muslim Students Association. “I just mix with everybody else. If they go to the bar, I follow, although I don’t drink. I drink something else.”
Students also can find diversity within the groups themselves. Jeffrey Wan ’07, for example, is a member of the Korean Christian Fellowship, even though he was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New Jersey. “I am not Korean,” Wan says. “There are a lot of members of the Korean Christian Fellowship that are not Korean. But we do have mostly Asians and a few Caucasians as well. It’s important to me to be with the group I grew up with.”
Rabbi Aryeh Wineman, Rensselaer’s Jewish chaplain, agrees that it is important to help students identify with others like themselves. He believes the school could be more welcoming to prospective Jewish students. Local recruiting events often take place Friday nights, he says, and Commencement is on Saturday morning, both out of reach for those who observe the Jewish Sabbath.
‘These are symbolic factors,” he says. “At RPI the religious representatives take part in the graduation. I don’t go.”
With such broad diversity on campus, accommodating all religious practices and beliefs can be challenging and leave the Institute open to such criticism. Kenneth Durgans, Rensselaer’s vice provost for institute diversity, says that while holding Commencement on Saturday was not intended as a slight, he could understand Rabbi Wineman’s reaction. The day was chosen to make travel more convenient for parents, but such decisions have other ramifications.
“I’m not surprised to hear that people are saying what they’re saying,” says Durgans, who has no role in scheduling Commencement. “The beauty of the diversity issue is the complexity. We have to find ways to work through it. Sometimes in that process you do the best you can, and it requires some give on the part of diversity.”
Boris Dvinsky, a senior, doubts that the Saturday Commencement will disrupt worship for many people. Technically, as an Orthodox Jew he could attend without breaking Sabbath laws because Commencement is not a work commitment. But, regrettably, Dvinsky will probably not receive his diploma alongside his classmates, he says, because doing so on Saturday breaks the spirit of the day. Missing Commencement is “not a major problem for me,” he says. “The most important part for me and my parents is of course actually receiving the degree, not the ceremony.”
His baseball cap and sideburns hardly distinguish him from other students but his grooming reflects his adherence to Orthodox Judaism. A head covering shows reverence to God and sideburns are a modern interpretation of Jewish laws. Reared in Hanover, N.H., where the population of observant Jews is small, Dvinsky and his family practiced largely at home. He knew that the Jewish community at Rensselaer was not large.
But in Troy, he can walk to shul and spend long hours at Rabbi Leible Morrison’s house for discussions over Shabbat meals. Professors understand when he misses class during holy days. “They had kosher food available here and a place to go on Shabbat,” says Dvinsky, a computer science major. “I wanted a place where I’d feel accepted.”
Perhaps this supportive atmosphere explains why Jacqueline Baldwin, an executive chef on campus, is filling more requests lately for kosher meals. Rensselaer dining halls provide self-service stations, equipped with a refrigerator and a grill, for both kosher and halal foods. Fruits and vegetables and desserts are also provided to meet Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. Baldwin special-orders meat and packages it as kosher or halal, as supervisors from both faiths look on. Traditional foods are also served during Lent and Passover. During Ramadan, campus food services packs up small meals students can eat before sunrise and after sunset.
“We started all of this within the past five years and we did a lot of research,” says Baldwin. “I think we give good service considering we serve 30,000 meals a week just in our dining halls.”
In residence halls, the Union, and all around campus, it is commonplace to hear questions being asked that are rarely brought up elsewhere. “Why do you wear a head scarf?” “Why can’t you drink?” “Why are you praying?” “Why can’t you go to a party on a Friday?” “Why can’t you wear shorts?”
Sometimes students negotiate a fine line between living their faith and blending with the secular community. For instance, Wan, a biomedical engineering and economics major, is uneasy in biology class when the topic of evolution is raised. While he is happy to consider the scientific theories, his Christianity compels him to also look to God for answers. Wan is unclear about when, or even whether, it is appropriate to raise his questions.
Joe Reynolds ’06, who has been a leader in the Rensselaer Christian Association, has occasionally felt uncomfortable around peers whom he fears will assume he is out to convert them. Even so, like many other students he also welcomes their questions.
“If I’m reading my Bible in public I’ve had someone ask, ‘Why do you read it all the time? Can’t you read it once and know it?’” says Reynolds, a chemical engineering major. “I was able to explain that a lot of the Bible you can pull out and talk about in groups and individually. We should be able to talk about these things. We’re in college. We did not come here to be spoon-fed.”
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