No Atheists in the Foxhole

Neha Mehrotra |

Robert Harding / Getty Images

It’s Thursday, April 8, the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and Hillel, the Center for Jewish student life at Columbia and Barnard, is hosting its annual Seder – traditionally a time to gather around a table with family and friends. The center’s rabbinic intern, Andrew Oberstein, is officiating at the celebration. But today, when Oberstein kicks off the evening asking, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” he is referring to something over and above Passover’s traditional history. Though the formal characteristics of the occasion are the same—they will still have four questions, there will still be four children, they will still sing dayenu and they will still retell the story of Israelites exodus from Egypt—Passover is exceptionally unique this year.

Rather than sitting with others at a holiday table, Oberstein sits all alone in his living room in the Upper West Side, staring at his computer screen. People on his right and left are in their own homes instead of at his side. With grocery stores transformed into the new danger zones, tonight’s Seder plate consists of leftovers from his kitchen, though in one form or another, all the essential symbolic elements are there: the shank bone, vegetables, bitter herbs, eggs and a fruit and nut dish known as haroset.

This is Oberstein’s first—and God willing his last—Zoom Seder.

For years, surveys have indicated that Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z’ers (born 1997 onwards) are far less likely than older generations to identify with a religious group. Overall, 35% of adult Millennials, i.e., one in three, identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.” This is hardly a surprise, given the irreverent world we now live in. Rather than look up, we now prefer to look askance. We no longer need God to answer questions beyond our reach. The internet suffices. When Nietzche said that God is dead, he was prescient. Agency is no longer surrendered to a higher power; instead, humans control their own lives. We are our own gods.

But to those who proclaim religion’s obsolescence, the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world has foregrounded a different reality: Far from being obsolete, religion has adapted to the need of the times, and in the process, has succeeded in proving its own dynamism and continued relevance. Amongst the younger generation too, religion—if once seen as static dogma—is now appreciated for its reflexive, reflective timelessness.

April is a time of renewal in religions all around the world: Jews celebrate Passover; Christians come together for Easter; Muslims fast for Ramadan; Hindus light firecrackers for Ram Navmi; and Sikhs offer societal service for Baisakhi. This year, as students across the country vacated college campuses and returned home, on-campus festivities were understandably abrogated. But as Columbia Religious Life communities attempted to salvage what little celebratory spirit they could, they realized that COVID-19 might have derailed some aspects of their yearly rituals, but it had accentuated other, more underlying, connotations of the festivals themselves.

“In many ways, an out of the ordinary Passover is part of the fabric of Jewish history,” said Oberstein at the start of the virtual Seder. Oberstein, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, only recently joined the Columbia/Barnard team as an intern. The online group he is officiating at today comprises 20 people, most of them students and alumni of the university, tuning in from the isolation of their homes.

“Jews kept Passover in underground caves during the Crusades, they kept it during the Holocaust, in ghettos, in concentration camps. And today, it’s a new reality. Today, we gather alone in front of our Ipads and laptops. But the spirit of the holiday is stronger than COVID-19 and maybe now, more than ever before in our lives, we need this story of the possibility of redemption, the story of hope.”

The very next day, Columbia Muslim Life hosts its weekly Friday Jummah Zoom. The student religious life adviser for Muslims, Amina Darwish, introduces the speaker for the afternoon: Imam Suzanne Kasim from Berkeley, California, who will be heading the prayer today. It’s the week leading up to Ramadan, and Kasim’s sermon emphasizes the holiday’s significance in these crisis-ridden times.

Darwish, who earned her traditional Islamic studies certifications from the Qalam Seminary in Dallas, and the Critical Loyalty Seminary in Toronto, Canada, knows Kasim from before, and the two keep up a warm, friendly banter throughout the sermon. Their conversation is punctuated by frequent laughter. “I love laughing with you friend,” exclaims Darwish at one point. “We always laugh so much, we do,” sighs Kasim.

Kasim goes on to frame her sermon around the twin axes of qadr (Allah’s divine decree to his followers) and dua’ah (followers supplication to Allah): “On the night of Ramadan, any dua’ah you make is answered,” says Kasim. Ideally, if you’re dua’ah is strong, it can push adversity away. If you’re dua’ah is weak, meaning you’re distracted, or you don’t have a strong relationship with Allah, you are liable to be afflicted with calamity. Ramadan, however, is a special circumstance. “If an illness or calamity happens, and a person makes a dua’ah on Ramadan, that dua’ah has the power to change Allah’s qadr. Allah accepts that person’s supplication and changes His decree.” And so Kasim encourages Muslim students to spend Ramadan supplicating to Allah to deliver humanity from this pandemic.

Personally, Kasim believes Allah has a purpose for the pandemic. “I think we have been abusing ourselves and the people and the earth around us. And Allah has paused everybody to think about what we’re doing. This is a pause.” Though Amina Darwish, the Islamic life advisor, agrees, she knows that for some students, this is going to be a really difficult test. “I know a student who lost her job because of this crisis and is now struggling to pay rent,” she says. Students come to Darwish with all kinds of concerns, now more than usual. Someone wants to know how they can serve those less fortunate than themselves; another student is worried about her grandmother, who is in a nursing home in Harlem; a third wonders how to sustain a sense of community in times like these. “I don’t think people’s religiosity has increased but they are more self-reflective now. Because they have so much time, they have turned inwards,” says Darwish.

Two days after Friday Jummah, it’s, once again, a time for celebration. Easter Sunday is here, and 39-year-old Ryan Kuratko, the chaplain of Columbia’s Episcopal Campus Ministry, has a packed evening: a 5 p.m. Bible study followed by a 6 p.m. Easter service. Only two students show up online for the Bible study, but one of them, undergraduate student Andi Dixon, encourages me to come for the 6 p.m. service because, as she puts it, “everyone and their mothers will be there.” And true enough: 17 students tune in an hour later, some accompanied by mothers, fathers, grandmothers, others settled in bed, alone but happy enough to chatter away. In fact, Kuratko’s own father has tuned in from North Carolina, and sits through the entire service, beaming proudly.

“In a way, online services are more intimate, more personal, because you can see people in their own homes, with their own family, like peeking into their window,” says Kuratko. Before this, Kuratko had never seen student Christine Piazza’s bedroom; he didn’t know Madeleine George gorged on chocolate when home alone; and he had definitely never met so many students’ parents all at once. “It’s a new kind of community,” he says.

It is indeed a new kind of community, even if it’s a smaller one: Across the board, Columbia’s religious life advisors agreed that the number of students attending weekly meetings has fallen, approximately by half. However, they didn’t think this was an indication of anything other than students having left campus to go back home. “This is just a disruptive moment,” says 40-year-old Rev. Dr. Ian Rottenberg, Dean of Religious Life. “My guess would be every event that had 20 people prior to students dispersing has seen drop offs. If I had been a college student, I wouldn’t have gone to my clubs at a time like this. I would just be trying to finish the semester. And a lot of students I’ve spoken to, their usual clubs have not reconvened since the breakup. So I don’t think it’s a religion specific thing. In fact, a 50% attrition rate is pretty good I would say.”

Though weekly attendance has fallen, the number of appointment requests for religious counseling received by Rottenger’s office have remained more or less constant. For his part, Rottenberg has noticed increased anxiety amongst students. “This is because students are losing family members. And the worst part is, they can’t even be there with their loved ones at a time like this. People are passing away, and students can’t even have a funeral service for them, can’t pay tribute to them as they deserve.”

Times like these have, as many of the people I spoke to pointed out, propelled an acute religious awareness.

“Even my nonreligious friends are grappling with this,” says Simran Jeet Singh, the 35-year-old Sikh pastor at Columbia. “People are realizing what the absence of community means, and are trying to connect – with themselves, with other people. And now they finally have the time to do it.” Darwish, the Islamic life advisor, admits that she has been praying a lot more, for people in all corners of the world whom she doesn’t even know.

Virtual Buddhist meditation circles are witnessing an increase in new members frequenting weekly sit-ins to calm their anxieties. “Buddhist teachings allow students to take this crisis well,” says Rev. Doyeon Park, Buddhist religious life advisor at Columbia who received full ordination in 2007 and has since been working in New York City. “Because Buddhism teaches them about impermanence and how to cope with these changed conditions.”

Forty-one-year-old Father Dan O’Reilly, Director of Columbia Catholic Ministry, puts it most succinctly: “There are no atheists in the foxhole.”