This past week, the Jewish and Christian communities on campus observed Passover and Easter, both of which are major holidays in each respective religion. In celebration, Vassar’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices (RSLCP) organized seders, church services and conversational meetings for students. These events were inclusive of all denominations and faiths.
According to Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices Reverend Samuel Speers, holding religious events on Vassar’s secular campus sends the message to students that their religion is welcome on campus. He emphasized that students are certainly not required to leave Vassar to observe their religion.
“[Services are] part of the fabric of campus life, and they can find the services here, on this wonderfully secular campus. We also have a good number of students for whom [Easter and/or Passover] are important holidays and want to observe them. It’s our job to provide that as a communal resource,” Speers explained.
Both the Christian and Jewish communities on campus held multiple events for students. On Friday, April 19, the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life held a joint Passover seder led by Union leaders and other students.
VJU Events Chair Molly McCarthy ’21, who took part in the seder, explained, “On Saturday, we coordinated three smaller seders led by students in different locations across campus. This week, the Vassar Jewish Union is hosting a Passover Week of Action.” These Passover seders served as celebratory meals to commemorate the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.
According to VJU’s Facebook page, the Passover Week of Action was “one week filled with social justice initiatives in the spirit of Passover.” These projects featured several service-focused events, including a trash pick up on campus, writing letters about climate change, assisting Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, wearing denim to stand with survivors of sexual violence and a “clean out your closet” challenge with the purpose of donating excess clothing.
An organizer of Passover Week of Action, Lila Rutishauser ’22, said over email that these events served to inspire reflection and create impactful experiences for students. Rutishauser described, “VJU is endorsing these events for Passover in an effort to create something meaningful for everyone out of a holiday that we celebrate. In the Jewish tradition, this week is a time for reflection on the exodus from Egypt … Our goal was to create a fun, easy way for people to contemplate their influence within and outside of the Vassar community.”
The Christian community also held services and meetings for students during this year’s holy week. President of Vassar Catholic Community Elizabeth Lamont ’21 explained that there were several regular student organization meetings with a focus on Easter. She elaborated that there were then eccumenical events to include students from different faiths and Christian denominations.
Speers added that these events started with a Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Passion Sunday, service, and then continued with various events throughout the week leading up to Easter Sunday services.
Lamont found the conversational focus during the weekly meetings to foster growth and understanding among attendees. “I enjoyed all the events I attended. I think that at the core of all the events that the RSLCP office plans is the idea of community,” said Lamont. She attended several events, including a Palm Sunday procession, a dinner hosted by Vassar’s Episcopal church, a Vassar Catholics and Conversation meeting and an ecumenical Agape Meal, which signified the last supper that Jesus had before his crucifixion.
Other students described how these conversations are vital to building religious communities on campus across faiths.
Noah Alpers ’22, an active member of VJU who attended and assisted in organizing one of the seders, appreciated how these events allowed him to meet a variety of people. He said of the events: “I think a lot of personal backstory comes out, and you find this common ground with other people, and actually at this event there were a lot of people from Poughkeepsie. I met a woman who was a graduate of Vassar in 1976. I really enjoy being a part of this because it creates a sense of continuity between life back at home and life at Vassar.”
McCarthy reiterated this sentiment, saying that the role of these services extends beyond fostering connections within a religious group to educating students about religions unfamiliar to them. “It is important that Vassar offers spaces for people to celebrate Passover and other holidays because this is our home,” she explained. “It is Vassar’s job as a community to provide for the needs of its residents, and we have all have a need and a right to observe our religious customs.”