Opinion | Maintaining religious obligations in college is extremely difficult

By Remy Samuels, Senior Staff Columnist

Since my first year of college, I have struggled to maintain certain religious obligations while balancing the stresses of school and classes. When your religion requires you to fast for hours on end or restrict eating certain foods, it becomes difficult to focus in classes and perform well on exams and papers.

Especially for students in religious minorities, it is extremely difficult to keep religious traditions in college. After speaking with several Pitt students of different religions, it is evident that universities need to make better accommodations for these students — whether that be providing more options in the dining halls or professors allowing more extensions and absent days.

As a Jewish student, for me, the holiday of Passover is always met with an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Keeping kosher for Passover while living on your own comes with a whole set of challenges, and I often fail to follow all the “rules,” which in turn makes me feel like I’m disrespecting the holiday.

Growing up in a Jewish household, keeping kosher for Passover was very doable. For those who don’t know, keeping kosher for Passover requires one to abstain from eating chametz, or foods with leavening agents. This is made from the five principal types of grain — wheat, rye, spelt, barley and oats. Jews eat matzo on Passover because it is produced under highly controlled conditions to ensure that it does not ferment or rise. It is supposed to remind us of a time when the Israelites, while fleeing from slavery, had no time to let the bread rise, so they ate matzo instead.

Keeping kosher for eight straight days is no small feat, but before college, I was able to follow the rules more closely because my whole family participated in keeping kosher. My parents would buy the kosher-for-Passover foods, and we would abstain from eating breads and pasta as much as we could.

However, since living at college, accessing all the materials necessary for the holiday has been much more difficult. Although organizations such as Chabad and Hillel certainly provide a lot of kosher meals for Jewish students, it really isn’t enough for the whole week, and without a car on campus, it is difficult to grocery shop for all new foods. Not to mention, it’s pretty expensive to get rid of all your “chametz-ridden” groceries and buy all new ones.

Additionally, living with non-Jewish roommates adds to the temptation of wanting to break Passover. If friends are going out to eat or are just eating a bowl of mac and cheese right in front of me, I’m going to be tempted to eat those things.

Liam Shanahan, a senior economics and political science major, said he experienced a similar temptation when he observed Lent last month. For Catholics, Lent lasts about 40 days — starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter — and it is used as a time for prayer and reflection. Most people do not fast for the entirety of Lent, but rather they sacrifice a particular vice, such as a favorite food or smoking. This is done to reflect on Jesus’ deprivation in the wilderness and resist temptation. Every Friday up until Good Friday, which is the day that Jesus died, Catholics are not supposed to eat meat to symbolize how Jesus sacrificed his flesh. Catholics are supposed to sacrifice the flesh of animals in homage of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Shanahan said he decided to give up sweets for Lent this year, but the hardest thing he did was avoiding meat on Fridays.

“I didn’t eat meat on any Fridays, which was hard when we would go out as a friend group,” Shanahan said. “When you’re by yourself you can figure something out, but when you’re with a lot of people that are not Catholic and aren’t observing it and you’re just watching them all eat [meat], that’s when I feel like it gets the hardest.”

But he said this temptation was good, in a sense, because it made it feel more like a real sacrifice. At home, he said observing Lent was much easier because everyone in his household would do it, but being on his own and surrounded by non-Catholics makes it much more difficult.

Shanahan lives in off-campus housing where he has access to his own kitchen. For students like sophomore Barrie Wiener — a French and politics and philosophy major at Pitt — who live on campus and rely on the dining halls for meals, observing religious holidays like Passover is doubly challenging. Not only does Wiener typically keep kosher for Passover very strictly, but she is also vegetarian. So when Market Central served all meat-based foods the week of Passover, she didn’t have many options.

“During the week it was very difficult for me to find things to eat,” Wiener said. “I ended up making a lot of my own food. I cooked a lot the first night, so I could stock up, but that goes quickly when you’re eating three meals at home a day.”

Luckily, Wiener had access to a communal kitchen in Lothrop Hall, and Hillel provided her with money to make food that first night. But once she went through that food, she said she wasn’t eating enough and actually ended up passing out a few times.

“I ended up not breaking my fast,” Wiener said. “But I ate kitniyot even though I usually don’t because I was like, ‘I have to or else I’m not going to survive.’”

Kitniyot is a category of foods that Ashkenazi Jews typically avoid on Passover, and it includes corn, rice, beans and lentils. Wiener also said this was necessary because she was having a hard time maintaining energy for classes.

“I’m in a dance class every week and I couldn’t put in the energy that I needed to put in because my body felt heavy because I hadn’t been eating well,” Wiener said.

Clearly, trying to keep kosher for Passover while relying on the dining halls and sustaining energy for classes is extremely difficult. There needs to be more kosher options for students such as Wiener who cannot eat meat. Besides the dining halls, places like Forbes Market or Market to Go could provide more kosher meals to accommodate these students, but unfortunately the food available is extremely limited.

Another religious holiday that begins on Monday, April 12, is Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic holy calendar. Muslims consider this a holy month because it was when the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. For 30 days, Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset and pray five times throughout the day. There is a period of time called suhoor, where a meal is consumed early in the morning, typically at about 3-4 a.m., before fasting.

Zane Elgogari, a senior rehabilitation science major, is observing Ramadan this month and said he is nervous this year because it’s the first time he has had to fast while still in school. Because Ramadan is dependent on the Lunar calendar, sometimes it falls in the summer, but other times — like this year — it falls earlier in April or May. Elgogari is a resident assistant on campus and also relies on Pitt’s dining halls for his meals, so he said this will be difficult given that he is supposed to eat mainly halal food at this time.

“[It’s] really tough here as a student and just in general because we have the one halal station at Market, and I live on campus so I don’t have the opportunity to cook for myself,” Elgogari said. “So if I want to eat halal, I have to rely on that one station, which is totally fine. Their food is good and I enjoy it, but there’s no deviance from that if I want to stick to the halal diet.”

Another challenge Elgogari said he may face could arise when he needs to break his fast at sunset, which isn’t until about 8:15 p.m. He said by that time, Market is usually done serving dinner, since it typically starts at about 5 p.m.

“I think it’s just gonna be leftovers and scraps at that point,” Elgogari said. “That’s something that I’m concerned about because I don’t know if they’ve taken note of that and plan to have some stations open later or not.”

He said observing Ramadan when he’s at home is much easier because he can wake up on his own time and cook for himself without a problem. But because he does not have a kitchen in the dorms, he has to have “dorm-friendly” food for suhoor, which he said will be tough since all he can really keep in his dorm is cereal, dates and fruit.

“The other option would be to have Market open at like 3:30 [or] 4 a.m. for Muslim students to come by for suhoor, which I don’t see happening, so you kind of have to fend for yourself in your dorm room and make do with what’s available. I think that’s gonna be a bit of a frustration.”

In terms of keeping up with classes and final exams, Elgogari said he is worried about having enough energy, especially for the first two weeks when his body is adjusting to the fast and he may feel very tired. When he has observed the holiday over the summer, he can be nocturnal and sleep all day during the fast and stay up at night to eat. But he said this kind of routine will not work in college.

“College schedules don’t care about these kinds of things,” Elgogari said. “Club meetings happen at 9:00 [p.m.] with no regard. It’s difficult being a religious minority here because your holidays are not important, or a priority, so no one is going to change their schedule to make sure that your holiday or religious celebration is adaptable to their schedule.”

Elgogari is right that being a religious minority in college is extremely difficult. When your holidays are not a priority and classes aren’t cancelled for these days, it’s hard to maintain religious obligations — especially when it comes to changing one’s diet — with everything else going on. I think it’s important to acknowledge students who are juggling a lot of commitments during these holidays, and the University should aim to be more accommodating of these students’ needs. This is an issue that deserves to be talked about more, and religious minority students should not have to suffer in silence.

Remy Samuels writes primarily about pop culture and current social issues. You can write to her at [email protected].