Religion In The Bubble

For some students, religion exists on the peripheral of daily life. For others, it is an essential aspect of university. At St Andrews, this diversity of opinion is reflected in the array of extracurricular activities available. Further underscoring the diversity of our town is the sheer multitude of religious societies: The Christian Union, the Jewish Society, and the Muslim Students Association, to name a few.

These groups allow students to find a like-minded community, celebrate religious holidays, and attend regularly scheduled events.

For example, the Christian Union recently held a week-long “Stories” event. During “Stories,” the CU encouraged Christian and non-Christian students to come with open minds and listen to others speak about their religious journeys.  50 individuals celebrated the Jewish festival Pesach with a meal in St Andrews Episcopal Church Hall. And on 22 April, the St Andrews Coexistence Initiative will host its annual conference.

The Saint spoke to members of several religious societies to find out more about their role in student life.

Alberto Micheletti of the Catholic Society described several of the group’s regular events. On Wednesday, speakers from around the UK discuss issues related to the Catholic faith.  Sunday sees potluck suppers and vespers in the evening.

The Jewish Society has a bagel lunch every other Wednesday, fortnightly Friday Shabbat suppers, talks, and a ball, too.

The Muslim Students Association has brothers circles and sisters circles, hold charitable events and talks, and also hosted a “Discover Islam” week.

If you want to practice religion and become more involved in these societies, they are there for you. After all, university is the ideal time to explore and develop your interests.

Marcus Gong said, “I used to go to a Christian international school in Shanghai, and we were required to take religion classes and go to chapels and assemblies. But it’s not the same here because you can just do whatever you want.”

Those who already have extensive knowledge of a particular religion may depart from their beliefs at university or intensify their convictions.

Mr. Micheletti said, “Coming to university and meeting many people in CathSoc who were my age and shared my beliefs greatly helped me deepen my faith.  Praying together with other people has been and is a very enriching experience that helps me reflect on how to put my faith in practice in my relationships with others.”

Kathryn Rose, president of the Jewish Society similarly said that her strongly engage with religion.

She added, “Coming to university has definitely made me a lot more engaged with the religion than I was before. I realised that if I wanted any Judaism in my life, I would have to actively find it. It wouldn’t come to me like it does at home.”

Both Mr. Micheletti and Ms. Rose emphasise the community aspect of religious societies.

Ms. Rose said, “I would say that being religious has enhanced my university experience, mainly because of the friends that I’ve made through being involved in Jewish life on campus.

“I do really value having a Jewish group of friends, as we share traditions and come together to celebrate Jewish festivals, and it even means that I can use Yiddish words without needing to explain what they mean. Having a Jewish community here in St Andrews is also part of what made me more engaged with the religion, and I think that if you don’t have the community there, it’s easier to lose that connection to that side of your identity.

“Judaism has a strong sense of community, [and] it’s great to be able to bring together similar people from all over the world.”

Although St Andrews has dozens of churches and a chaplaincy, however, Muslim and Jewish students must use the Mansfield. It is a great space, but not the real deal.

“Prayer can be difficult,” Ms. Rose commented, “as we don’t have a synagogue in St Andrews, so our services are student-led. […] We have limited experience ourselves of leading prayer.”

Mr. Micheletti notes how affirming it is to bump into people at the chaplaincy and around  town.  Both Mr. Micheletti and Ms. Rose are also keen to engage in conversation about their religion and answer questions.

“I have many close friends who are not Catholics or believers,” Mr. Micheletti said. “I really value this diversity and I sometimes have the opportunity to talk about my beliefs with them, which is always a beautiful experience where ideas are exchanged.”

Ms. Rose expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “My non-Jewish friends ask me questions about the religion and enjoy learning about it, and it’s nice to be able to share that aspect of myself with them. […] I’ve definitely had stereotypical questions and lots of people assume that by being involved in Jewish student life, I must be very religious and observant, whereas I actually come from a very progressive background where I don’t keep all the Jewish laws strictly.

“For the most part, people are interested to learn about this aspect of my identity that is different to what they know. They’re often worried about offending me by asking questions, but I love to share my religion with other people.”

Indeed, St Andrews benefits from having such cultural, national, and religious diversity. Through shared beliefs, practices, and social events, religious communities become close-knit and are there to provide support for members.

Ms. Rose’s description of the atmosphere JSoc creates at Jewish festivals exemplifies this. She said, “For many Jews, religion is largely about family and home, and the piece of feedback from JSoc that resonated with me the most was a few years ago when a girl told us that our Passover meal had felt just like being at home. I often feel that’s what we’re trying to create when we’re organising events. We’re trying to bring Jewish life and a part of home to students who are away from their families both at these important moments in the year [and] also in their day-to-day lives.”

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