‘A plurality of voices’: Building multi-faith engagement at Notre Dame

Author: Carrie Gates

Junior Shaker Erbini (left) majoring in neuroscience and behavior leads the Friday prayer service in the multi-faith prayer room at Jenkins Nanovic Halls. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Junior Shaker Erbini (left) majoring in neuroscience and behavior leads the Friday prayer service in the multi-faith prayer room at Jenkins Nanovic Halls. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

In many religions — including the Islamic and Jewish traditions — the heart is the center of thought and the seat of wisdom. And for a growing number of faculty and students of these faiths, their hearts are leading them to the University of Notre Dame.

Mahan Mirza, executive director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, has found the Catholic institution to be a welcome and apt place to research and teach on Islam and global affairs — particularly because scholars at Notre Dame are encouraged to grapple with questions that have a deeper meaning.

“If the kinds of questions you ask don’t mean something to you, then what is it you’re really doing?” he said. “To be able to have an education and to have conversations of importance from a place of a deeper sense of being and purpose — you can’t do that at other universities that are secular. But here, you can relate your work or your studies to what you believe, to your sense of purpose in life. How do you reconcile what you’re learning here with what you believe or what you’ve brought with you? Those are incredible opportunities for us to explore at an institution like this.”

As the University has built its global presence and welcomed more scholars of all faiths and cultures to campus, leaders across the University are also working to ensure those faiths are supported and celebrated — something Mirza sees reflected in the University’s mission.

“At the University, we have a clear mission that education is enriched by bringing a plurality of voices to the table,” he said. “And I think Notre Dame is deepening its commitment to that mission by opening up in this way.”

That commitment to welcoming other faith traditions includes honoring holidays like Hanukkah and Ramadan, fostering opportunities for interreligious dialogue and creating multi-faith prayer rooms in campus buildings.

Celebrating together

Professor Karen Richman (second from left) and senior Blake Ziegler (right) celebrate Hanukkah with friends on campus. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Professor Karen Richman (second from left) and senior Blake Ziegler (right) celebrate Hanukkah with friends on campus. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Karen Richman, a cultural anthropologist and director of undergraduate studies in the Institute for Latino Studies, leads a group for Jewish faculty and staff at the University and partners with the Jewish student organization. Like Mirza, she said she feels at home at Notre Dame because of, rather than in spite of, its Catholic identity.  

“There’s a great attraction for me to being here because there are some places where if you are a believer, you might feel like an outcast,” Richman said. “But here, I feel very supported and there’s a great respect for people’s beliefs — no matter what they are.”

In leading the Jewish faculty and staff organization, Richman helps raise awareness of events on campus like the annual Jewish film festival and the Annual Liss Lecture in Judaica, as well as hosting celebrations for Jewish holidays like Sukkot and Hanukkah and more informal social gatherings.

Last week, she hosted a party to celebrate Hanukkah, which began Sunday (Dec. 18), to ensure students and faculty could celebrate together with traditional foods and activities before the end of the semester.

Hanukkah is a minor holiday compared to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is a beloved celebration. The story of Hanukkah, she said, is one of persecution and resistance, as well as one of hope and light in a time of darkness. At a time when the Holy Land was taken over by Syrian-Greeks and Jewish people were forbidden to worship and persecuted for their faith, a revolt led by the Maccabees ultimately succeeded in reclaiming their religious freedom.

“According to the story, members of this family then came upon the ruins of the main synagogue, which symbolized the total destruction of their people and their religion. And they found a single vial of oil left for the light. But when they lit it, it lasted for eight days,” Richman said. “And the miracle was that the oil lasted so long. But, in a sense, you could also say that it was a miracle that this little band of Jewish guerrillas resisted this big army and colonial force to seize back their freedom. So I think most Jews think of those messages when they think about Hanukkah.”

Notre Dame faculty, staff and students celebrate Hanukkah on campus. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Notre Dame faculty, staff and students celebrate Hanukkah on campus. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Senior Blake Ziegler, who attended the Hanukkah celebration, is president of the Jewish Student Club on campus. A political science and philosophy major, he focuses his studies on the intersection of religion and politics. 

The first elected ambassador president of the organization Jewish On Campus, Ziegler has organized annual events during Antisemitism Awareness Week and successfully advocated for the Student Senate to adopt the international Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, which is used by hundreds of organizations worldwide from soccer teams to governments and universities.

“The purpose of the definition is to provide a unified understanding of antisemitism and to recognize that this is a very complex, very nuanced form of hatred,” he said. “The Student Senate unanimously approved it, and since then, we have been working with the University administration on officially adopting it.”

Increasing awareness

Members of all faith traditions are also encouraged to use the University’s multi-faith prayer rooms in Jenkins Nanovic Halls and Coleman-Morse Center. The rooms include washing stations for ablutions (ritual washing before prayers), as well as prayer rugs traditionally used in Muslim prayer services and medallions indicating the directions to face toward Mizrach (toward Jerusalem) and Qibla (toward Mecca) for Jewish and Islamic worshippers.

Having that space available means “everything,” Mirza said.

“I think that if you asked any practicing Muslim for the one thing that they would ask an employer, it would be a place of prayer and time to pray, when it comes time to perform the ritual obligation. And we have that here, and it’s a great blessing,” he said. 

Students pray during a Friday prayer service in the Prayer Room at Jenkins Nanovic Halls. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Students pray during a Friday prayer service in the multi-faith prayer room at Jenkins Nanovic Halls. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

“I think a prayer room like this is a great example of what we call here at Keough, ‘integral human development.’ It’s providing, even in our buildings and architecture and space, what is needed for human beings to feel like they’re living full lives rather than tiptoeing around in a foreign land.”

Mirza and Richman agreed that increasing awareness of other faith traditions on campus is a next step for the University, and the Ansari Institute is launching a new calendar of religious holidays and observances that anyone at Notre Dame can download.

Charles Powell, a faculty member in the institute who focuses on multi-faith engagement, said this is a particularly important tool to help the Notre Dame community understand when a Jewish student might be unable to come to class on an important holiday, for example, or when a Muslim colleague may be fasting.

“It will be nice to have access to this as faculty because we’ll know what’s happening in various faith traditions and what our students are experiencing,” he said. “We can also engage in conversation with them about their holy days and share that part of their life.”

Powell has also been selected as a mentor in the Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative, a competitive fellowship program in the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College and in partnership with Interfaith America.

He and undergraduate Chloe Lestitian, who was selected as a fellow, meet regularly with peers from partner institutions including Brown, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, to explore how to build community and foster interreligious engagement.

Powell and Lestitian will be launching the Interfaith Notre Dame Initiative on Earth Day 2023 and will host monthly colloquiums where people of all faiths are invited to come to share about their faith tradition.

“We are inviting people from the Baháʼí faith, the Buddhist tradition, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and anyone who wants to be a part of it,” Powell said. “Our first event will be to discuss how each faith tradition talks about bringing healing to the earth and how we care for the earth.”

Once each semester, the initiative will also host a larger panel discussion exploring a particular faith tradition and how it fosters integral human development. 

“It was Pope Francis who said that if we want to know our own faith tradition better, we need to know others,” Powell said. “And inspired by that, as well as Vatican II’s call to engage with other religions, we want to explore all that is good in our faith traditions, learn from each other and develop a civic plurality where we can work together in the world — and particularly on campus.”

Read more about Mahan Mirza here.