Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As part of this year’s Religion and Spirituality Week, the Interfaith Center, along with IC group Multi, co-sponsored an interfaith student panel featuring stories from Swatties who grew up with multiple religious heritages. The event, spearheaded by Jasper Goldberg ’12 and organized by Interfaith Interns Dina Emam ’11 and Jane Abell ’11, hoped to shed light on a rarely-discussed issue at Swarthmore.
The discussion had an intimate, personal feel with the audience sitting in a wide circle among the eight student panelists. Each student touched on their own personal experiences either with parents who practiced different religions or religions separate from their own. The resulting stories presented ranged from conflicted to enthusiastic to reflective to confused and all the in betweens, truly proving what a spectrum of experiences intersections of identity can create.
Dina Emam ’11 started the event off with her experiences as the daughter of a Muslim father and Buddhist mother. While she learned much about both faiths and their associated culture, Emam was always “acutely aware of the rift within the family on what ideals were being passed on through her”.
The notion of “inheriting faith” was commonly revisited throughout the discussion, an interesting topic since religion is not genetic nor phenotypic. Shilpa Boppana ’11 says that her mother’s Hinduism was often perceived by her father, an affirmed atheist, as inherently tied up with the Indian cultural aesthetic and was often endorsed as a means of cultural preservation. Growing up as “a cultural Hindu” in Alabama among Southern Baptists, Boppana gained new understanding of how politics, ethnicity, and religion could become so entwined.
Jasper Goldberg ’12 used to think of his multi-faith background “as almost racial in a way, 50-50, a percentage” though he soon realized he couldn’t necessarily point out which parts of him were Jewish as opposed to Episcopalian. While he is a confirmed Christian, Goldberg has started to “think a lot more about his Jewish heritage and the Goldberg name” while at Swarthmore.
Jane Abell ‘11 pointed out that “the idea of blood [ties] are very strong in many Jewish communities” and that she was often called out as a “fake Jew” though she strongly identified with the faith. Abell ultimately came to terms with the multiple facets of her identity: “Yes, I’m a Jew. But I’m not only a Jew.”
Sarah Ifft ‘09 had similar experiences when, as a child, she was told by her teacher that she “had no father, according to Judaism.” Ifft often felt politicized as result of her practice of the faith, “I became the poster child for how intermarriage doesn’t destroy Judaism and had to constantly prove my Jewish identity.”
Panelists also frequently revisited the idea of “authenticity” and how their religious claims were often contested or misunderstood in many different settings. Nick Schultz ‘11, a native Minnesotan, says that he was “The Quaker” in his high school, “people would come up to me and ask: Quaker? What’s that? Are you Amish?”
The Schultz family had actually agreed to alternate traditions, attending Catholic mass one week and Quaker meeting the next. Ultimately, Schultz drifted towards an amalgam of the two, attending Meetings more often, but “picking and choosing the doctrines [he] subscribed to”. In the end, Schultz found it beneficial to “mind the gap” between his two faiths, realizing that he could be the “creator of his own system of beliefs.”
Joel Swanson ’10 followed up with a lighthearted piece about his mixed faith background. Though he says he was “often looked down up as “the mutt” in school,” his interfaith background (particularly fairly hilarious parents) has allowed him to understand many different religious views. Now a religion major, Swanson can attribute his interest to being interfaith. “I have always thought about and questioned religious practices, a habit that I was raised to believe was normal”
Providing an interesting divergence, Ivana Ng ’12 concluded the official panel with experiences meshing her conversion to Christianity within her family, a difficult feat which often left her “confused and maybe even alienated”;the panel wound down with a conversational, free-flow exchange of comments and questions between members of the panel and members of the audience. Overall, the panel and ensuing Q&A echoed sentiments from the recent inaugural address – that a patchwork heritage can be a strength rather than a weakness. Goldberg aptly summed up the event, concluding, “coming from an interfaith family, it’s almost like having an extra set of keys….each faith comes with its own language. When you start to translate between them, you can really see the overlapping fundamental truths.”