God and Grades


By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Oct 1, 2007 9:00 AM

Another surprise, albeit more pleasant, Shifa said, is that while on campus he has not felt like a member of a minority religion. When he took History 4, the popular history of religions course (see sidebar, page 23), Professor Scott Bartchy, a Christian, would always follow the Prophet Muhammad's name with "and peace be upon him."

In the Jewish history courses Professor David N. Myers teaches, he's found that Muslim students are not only respectful of Jewish history, but eager to learn from it. "They are interested in learning about the history of Muslim-Jewish relations and about the ways that Jewish history might offer lessons for how Muslims can exist as minorities in Western society."

In fact, Muslims have some of the highest rates of spiritual quest. That's why on any given Friday a few dozen Muslim students can be seen doing the afternoon prayer in Kerckhoff's Grand Salon or Ackerman's Viewpoint conference room.

Jewish students, on the other hand, "are the most secular religious group," says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. "They are outstanding; they are champions in religious disbelief."

But don't tell that to Marco Gonzalez, an international development studies and political science student. Gonzalez, who is Jewish, emigrated six years ago from Mexico with little understanding of Jewish culture or tradition. So he added a weekly class to his course load. Only, it wasn't offered through the university, but at the Chabad House on Gayley Avenue.

On a Wednesday night, Gonzalez enters the upstairs classroom at Chabad and pulls out his textbook, Jewish Essentials: A Spiritual Guide to Jewish Life & Living.

"In the last couple of classes, we learned about the paramount importance of the Torah," Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, the Chabad campus co-director, says. "The Torah was received at Mt. Sinai, and the next holiday we celebrate, Shavuot, reminds us of that. That is very nice, but we have to make it practical and real ... We have to learn ways to make it real in our daily lives."

Tonight Gonzalez and three other students learn about the mezuzah (a sacred parchment hung on door posts to make holy the room inside) and tefillin (the boxes containing passages of the Torah and the leather straps Orthodox Jews use for prayer).

On college-ruled paper, Gonzalez takes detailed notes. "I want to be able to pass on these traditions to my children," he says. "I want to know what I'm talking about, so that when they have questions I don't have to say, 'Ask a rabbi.' "

Gonzalez departs about 9:30 and heads straight to Powell to finish studying for a midterm the next day on international relations of the Middle East. But he doesn't mind staying up late and getting up early if it means not missing the time at Chabad.

"I would rather go to Chabad and learn it and enjoy it there, and just put in some extra time into my classes," Gonzalez says. "I've been taking the class at Chabad, and it's almost like having another class for school. But it's a more important subject. It is the subject of our lives."