A Jew on Two Wheels

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Interfaith Scholar Joel Gitskin shares how he connects to his faith through being a bike messenger 

The bike messenger community is an interesting one. In the last year and a half of my life, while I’ve been making money by carrying a bunch of stuff from one place to another on two wheels, I’ve met a strange and beautiful crowd of people. From young parents trying to provide for their children, to high school kids with a taste for adventure, artists working so they can do what they love, men in their forties who have been doing this job since I was in diapers, extremely well-read ex-train hoppers, suburban transplants trying to find their place in the world (like myself), young adults paying their way through college or graduate school (also like myself), and anybody in between. I can honestly say that this job has made me a better person, a better future educator, and a better Jew. I would be a vastly different person that I am now had I never wandered into Raptor Delivery on a lazy Friday afternoon my second year at DePaul and asked “are you looking for riders?”

One of the most important things for me that this “career path” brought about was in my Judaism. My job at Raptor Delivery was the first job I had where I told my boss that I wouldn’t work on Shabbat, and I said the same thing when I moved to Snap Courier, where I currently work. Though the initial reasoning was a bit more practical, I knew that if I didn’t force a day off upon myself that I’d run myself into the ground, there was definitely a spiritual undertone in the decision, even if it was subconscious. Keeping Friday night and Saturday separate has been really beneficial in my spiritual development and my overall mental health.

Being a messenger (or Shliach, if you will) has been a benefit to those I’ve met as well as myself. At Snap, I’ve become, in a way, “The Jewish Guy,” and sometimes, more broadly “the religious guy.” The one who sometimes has a yarmulke under his cycling cap, and had tzitzis strings hanging out from under my t-shirt. Being religious, and even more, being up-front about it and proud of it, is not a very common thing these days, especially in the young urban community that comprises most of the messengers I work with. I’ve been the butt of some good-hearted jokes, and the creator of some myself, pertaining to my faith. I once had a colleague say to me “You know, this might sound weird, or even a little mean, but you’re like the coolest religious person I’ve met. I never saw religious guys as people I’d like to be around.” It was a strange compliment to receive, but one I’ve really taken to heart. People tend far too often to keep to people who are like themselves. Jews stick with Jews, Muslims stick with Muslims, and so on. Nonbelievers are no different. This leads inevitably to preconceived notions about “the others” and leads to the shrinking of our personal worlds. When I, as a messenger, maintain my Judaism, I create a bridge for the people I meet in either world, and show them that really, we aren’t all that different. Sure, our Friday nights look different on the surface, but my reasons for going to Shabbat: family, friends, belonging, food (mostly food), aren’t too different from the reasons my messenger friends all hang out on the weekends and in their time off.

I’m thankful to G-d every day that I found my love for cycling, and that I found a way to profit from it without having to race in the Tour de France. But even more, I’m glad that I can be the “token Jew” to people who’ve never really talked to one before. I’ve found that many of my coworkers had questions about it that I was able to answer for them, or misconceptions that I was able to clear up. I like to think I affected their lives for the better, I know they did me. I believe, and my faith teaches, that we’re put in this world to leave it, and the people populating it, in a better state than when we arrived. This could mean keeping Shabbat, for me, or putting on Tefillin, doing any Mitzvah. But I think it also means that I should share myself and my faith with those I’m brought into contact with, so that I can leave them a little happier, a little more understanding, a little better off, than when I met them.

New Year’s Resolutions

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Interfaith Scholar Olivia Hollman  share some of her New Year’s Resolutions She has been practicing . 

With a new calendar year starting, creating a New Year’s resolution seems to be a popular thing to do. Resolutions that I have had in the past have included: to exercise more and eat healthy, find inner peace, be nicer to my family, and make my bed every day. However, I always found it difficult to stick with these because I would either forget or I never made any concrete plans; they were always just abstract ideas in my head. Now I’ve learned that the best way to stick with something is to make a game plan and physically put it into my schedule (my agenda and calendar on my phone really help with this).

This year, part of my resolution is to grow spiritually and become more involved in my faith. When I decided this, I realized how abstract the idea sounded. How can I make this a concrete thing? Maybe you have decided on a similar resolution and are facing the same dilemma I did. Well, have no fear! With some brainstorming, I came up with seven possible ways to grow spiritually.

  1. Read sacred scripture. Pull out some texts associated with your own faith. As a Catholic, the Bible is pretty important and I love reading it, because I learn something new about the teachings of Jesus or the ministry of the prophets. On the flip side, one of the items on my “to-do list” for this year is to read from texts important to other faiths. In doing so, I hope to gain insight and knowledge of other faiths, which can help me strengthen my own through both differences and similarities.
  2. Read a piece of literature that is faith-based. A few years ago I read the book The Shack by William P. Young, which was a really interesting and entertaining book about a man’s encounter with God as he went searching for his daughter’s killer. The Shack kept me entertained and made me think: the two things I am looking for when I read a faith-related book. This year, I am going to read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, and Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, among others.
  3. Go to an event hosted by a group of a different faith or an interfaith event. Learning about another faith can be a really enlightening experience. As an Interfaith Scholar, learning about various faith traditions during our weekly meetings and at the QIRCs (Quarterly Inter-Religious Celebrations) has been a highlight of this school year and I plan to attend other services or events.
  4. Take a “faith field trip”. Take some time to go visit museums or places of worship from various faiths. Go alone, take some friends with you, make a day out of it, or just spend a few minutes there. Make it educational. Make it enlightening. Make it fun. Especially in the Chicago area, there are plenty of places to go. A few on my list to visit are: Holy Name Cathedral, Bahai Temple, the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini and the Chicago Temple. (For some other suggestions of sacred spaces to visit: http://www-tc.pbs.org/godinamerica/art/chi_cityguide.pdf)
  5. Do some research or take a class. Ever wondered about an important faith figure like St. Paul, Buddha, Confucius, Moses, or Martin Luther? Take some time to do some research at the nearest library or see if Google has anything or maybe even take a class. DePaul offers several classes that can fill Elective, Understanding the Past, Arts and Literature, and Religious Dimensions requirements, such as “Women in the Bible”, “Islam in Global Contexts”, and “Hindu Thought and Culture” (and there are so many other options as well).
  6. Join a group. Groups are great ways to get connected with people to share experiences and beliefs. Being a part of Catholic Campus Ministry (more of a community than a “group”) has helped me find a community where I can be myself and express my faith with friends. DePaul has several groups out there for a range of faiths: United Muslims Moving Ahead, Buddhist and Meditation Club, DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, DePaul Hillel, Orthodox Christian Fellowship of DePaul University, Tepeyac, and Young Life College to name a few.
  7. Reflect. I’ve found that in my life, doing a daily reflection and personal inventory are great ways to help keep me on track. This can be as simple as taking a few moments to think about the highs and lows of the day, looking at my calendar to see what all I accomplished for the day, or writing in a journal.

Charlie Hebdo Reflection

Interfaith ScholarJulian Vasyl Hayda  gives his thoughts on the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks and response.

While by no means do I condone or even try to excuse Wednesday’s terror attack on Charlie Hebdo, I find it difficult to excuse the content that provoked it. Charlie Hebdo, according to its editors, is openly “anti-religion” and “very racist,” and the buck doesn’t stop with Islam – they also disgrace Christianity, Judaism, and other religions. While people are free not to practice a religion, it still is incredibly important and very sensitive to many others. I agree that sometimes people are overly sensitive to their religions, but this cover, for example, crosses even liberal lines. It reads “Parisians who love the Pope are as dumb as Negroes.” There is another that’s supposed to depict the Holy Trinity in a threesome, and another with the Prophet Mohammed popping into his own mouth.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they should have been banned, or sued, and certainly no less killed. I’m a big believer of artistic expression and freedom of press. However, this was neither for sake of art, nor was it journalism – it was provocation. This is a case of a group of people being offensive for the sake of being offensive. Honest social commentary doesn’t have to be that offensive.
Now, this publication which treats and depicts people with below the least respect, is being treated like a martyr. For a paper that few people paid attention to or heard of, with a news stand circulation of 30,000, its message of intolerance has reached a massive new audience, and I find that very troubling. A mature person, who lives in the modern world, and no matter how offended he may be, knows that the best way to handle this situation is to ignore it. As pope Francis said, it’s best to be Teflon – let nothing stick, let it roll off.

I pray for the families of those killed, and am horrified at what happened to them. Nobody should be killed for their beliefs, offensive or provocative as they may be. However, I will not defend Charlie Hebdo’s actions, or people standing in solidarity with them and their message. To quote a fellow Facebooker, “emphatically, je NE suis Charlie.”

ST. VINCENT AND INTERFAITH

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Saint Vincent de Paul was born on April 24th, 1581 in a village in Gascony, France. Saint Vincent was a French priest of the Catholic Church who was famous for dedicating his life to help the poor. He founded the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, which are also known as Vincentian. They are a group of followers of the Vincentian mission who dedicate their lives, much like St. Vincent de Paul, to the service of others who are in the dire need. Based on the fundamentals of the Vincentian mission DePaul University strives to form an appreciation and understanding of the modes to higher education in culture, society, religion, moral values, and service.

Saint Vincent also elaborated that it is important for us to create a whole family of God, or a community. A community that is even diverse to come to gather to work for the greater good. It’s our mission to create a community who dedicates themselves in the servitude of helping those who are less fortunate. This entails, creating a community of diversity even in the aspects of religion.

Interfaith Scholars are students who join together from various religious backgrounds to perform, and educate the four ways of Dialogue. It is our duty as Interfaith Scholars to encourage discussions, between people and groups of various religious beliefs. We strive to create a safe environment to discuss the diversity within our perspective through events like Interreligious Celebrations, Retreats, and Movie Nights.

Our goal is to raise tolerance and awareness of varying spiritual traditions. We want to form a culture for DePaul that provides openness to religion, spirituality, and philosophical background. We provide service to the general body of students who may lack the key dialogue that unites us all as people.

How the Interfaith mission relates to St. Vincent’s ideals of creating a community, all of whom are the family of God in Vincent’s eyes, from all different ethnic, cultural, religious, economical and racial backgrounds. We are striving to share with our community the knowledge and education to form this diverse community. Vincent’s philosophy and ideas helps us as people to understand that we are different and a like in many ways beyond and within our spiritual ideals. We follow in St. Vincent’s footsteps in creating a more accepting and giving community

– Melanie Kulatilake

Faith and Deconstructing the Exclusivity of Truth

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Enass Zayed gives her take on the concept of faith and truth in a world of varied ideologies and experiences.

Over the course of this last year I have been asked to reflect on my religious ideologies quite a bit. There have been questions that I have had welling up from my own traditions that I have had to find answers to and there have been aspects of other traditions that I have felt were so profound that I have tried to incorporate them into my own belief structure. One of the biggest things that I have had to work my mind around is the concept of faith and how it exists within the concept of exclusive truth. There are many people who hold the belief that their traditions are the only proper way to behave. This phenomenon is prevalent in all aspects of life; religious or secular. My biggest challenge has been trying to remove myself from the ranks of the exclusive.

On our very first meeting, Mat Charnay asked me to define faith. While the clear and obvious answer is full trust in something outside of your self, I felt as though that was not enough to encapsulate the idea. Faith is taking the leap and hoping something catches you. In my mind, the strongest faith comes from knowing that there is a possibility that things are not quite as you imagine them, but committing to your ideas anyway. Faith is built by making informed decisions and seeking knowledge in all its forms so that any ideas that are created are likely to stand the barrage of obstacles that life throws at us. I am a firm believer in the idea of individual truth as opposed to a general and exclusive truth. Not everyone’s idea of religion are going to be able to satisfy the needs of the rest of the world and that is okay. In fact, that is the most beautiful things about faith in general. When properly executed, faith allows many people to have beautiful, complicated, and extensive ideas about every part of their lives: ideas that are relevant to their relationship with their world and their religion.

While most of this idea is pretty elementary to most, the part that I believe is left out is the idea that we might be wrong. I know that there is slight possibility that everything I hold true could be proven wrong tomorrow, but this understanding is what keeps my concept of faith growing. My personal approach to religious belief is that (most) everything is fluid. Ever since I was a child, I have done my own research into the religious systems that have surrounded me. I was never content to let someone give me traditions without understanding why there were valid or relevant. I was never content in settling on one answer because that would have meant that my research into faith would have stopped. Once I reach a comfortable conclusion, there is no point in continuing my search for a self relevant truth. My faith is built on the idea that I have to build knowledge to minimize the possibility that I am wrong about everything.

So, is the exclusivity of truth even relevant in the discussion of faith? In my opinion it is. From personal experience I have found that many people are unwilling to question their concept of truth as it would apply to another person. There is also little thought put into the idea that we do not always have the answers to everything. The idea of an exclusive truth lends itself to the idea that one religion is more valid than any others. This concept is problematic because so many religions teach that religion is a shared experience even if we do not all carry out our beliefs in the same manner and traditions. While my understanding of truth may be valid today, it is valid only in my experiences and only until something to the contrary comes into my world view. Until then, I feel as though I owe it to my faith and my religious belief to continuously research and build a stronger foundation from which I can take my leap of faith.

Faith, Falling Down, and Vampires

downloadInterfaith Scholar Thano Prokos gives his insight on music, faith, and spirit. 

We recently opened our Scholar meeting by answering the question “What fills your spirit?” Being the indecisive and long-winded person that I am, I decided to present my fellow scholars with my own litany of spirit fillers which in includes (but is not limited to) church, writing, English Renaissance literature, going on walks, singing in large groups, drawing pictures of pink fluffy unicorns, and listening to music.

Given that June will soon spring upon us, like a Greek grandmother on a cup of communion, I’m about to fill my mouth, ears, and spirit with song because it’s…. wait for it… THE SUMMER CONCERT SEASON! And this year, I’ll be starting off my annual concert binge with Vampire Weekend in early June, followed by Jack White in July, and concluding with Chicago’s Riot Fest (with some other names in between).

But Thano, how can you—a practicing Orthodox Christian—submit yourself to the Devil’s melodies on one day and go to church in good conscience the next day? Well old crotchety 1950’s man, let me tell you a little somethin’-somethin.’

It’s definitely challenging to be Orthodox and a lover of modern music. I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of stuff out there that I consider garbage—garbage I sometimes listen to—but garbage nonetheless. There’s art that’s uncreative, there’s art that doesn’t challenge you, there’s, there’s art that’s totally shallow, there’s art that purely seeks to antagonize certain audiences, and I really feel that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really do anything good for listeners.

But at the same time, there are songs that are critical of certain religious beliefs that I really appreciate. Take, for example, a couple of my favorite tracks from the latest Vampire Weekend album: “Unbelievers and “Ya Hey.” Both of these songs depict their speaker’s inability to connect to the divine and the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

The chorus in “Unbelievers” goes like this:

 

I’m not excited [about God], but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you,
and you love the sea,
but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”

It refers to the lack of nourishment that the speaker receives from the religious culture that surrounds him.

Ya Hey” uses a few biblical allusions to describe an inability to connect with God, while background vocals continuously repeat the song’s title (a pun on Yeweh):

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name,
only “I am that I am.

But who could ever live that way?”

So, both of these songs depict a struggle with spirituality, and though I’m probably on the other side of this struggle than the band’s songwriter Ezra Koenig, I can definitely relate to the difficulties of experiencing faith that Ezra Koenig sings about. Do I ever feel like religion isn’t doing anything for me? Do I ever feel like God is distant? Of course I do! Going to shows like these is one of my favorite examples of inter-faith in action: People who believe different things, but still use music to confront similar struggles of belief.

So let’s get back to spirit-filling. How does acknowledging my struggles—and thereby confronting my own moments of spiritual emptiness—fill my spirit? Is it filled from watching some of my favorite musicians dancing and enjoying themselves on stage? Is it filled from the sound of a stadium full of people singing along to my favorite song? Is it filled by the misty sensation of a cup of Miller Light raining down over my head as it flies further up towards the stage? Not quite to any of these, but I actually do enjoy getting the occasional beer shower.

When I confront really challenging songs or poetry, the filling of my spirit comes from knowing that if I do “fall down” from maintaining my relationship with God, I have the opportunity to “get back up” and continue dealing with my struggles. Here’s a better articulation of that comforting thought from the Orthodox theologian Jim Forrest’s book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

The story is called “A Fallen Monk Seeks Advice From St. Sisoes the Great”

A young monk said to Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”

And who knows, maybe one day there will be a Vampire Weekend song about that.

Ask Big Questions

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DePaul freshman Charlotte Mukahirn gives us her reflection following her experience with the university’s Ask Big Questions event on January 16th, 2014. Ask Big Questions is an initiative of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in partnership with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust that aims to foster understanding through better conversation. 

     Upon entering the conference room, I had only expected to discuss one question with the attendees of ABQ: “What will you do differently this year?” I had thought about the question to some extent beforehand, but my answer was still up in the air. Soon enough, people began to file in through the door. I could spot a few familiar faces, but at least half were unknown to me. We were asked by the leaders of the group, Sam and Joel, to arrange the chairs into a large circle while they set up their presentation. At first, a slight panic struck me. I’m going to be speaking in front of so many people. In reality, the group consisted of perhaps fifteen to eighteen people. But, for someone with social anxiety (like me), the number was a bit daunting. Then, Joel and Sam began the discussion by walking us through the guidelines for the night’s meeting. The rules were simple: Be respectful, give each person their time to talk, and if someone happens to offend you, don’t be afraid to let them know how and why their words affected you. Afterward, a short icebreaker took place in which each person told the group their name, major, and a change that happened to them recently. An atmosphere had already begun to form in which we felt comfortable sharing the highlights of our break, or even the lowlights. Familiarity spread about the room like ripples in a pond until we were all ready to move on. Then, Joel pulled up a document on the screen.

     “Take a moment and read through this,” he said, “and then find someone near you to discuss which parts of this passage stick out to you.” Simple enough. The title and author of the passage escape me now, but it generally stated which actions people commit that are damaging to their happiness. Actions like hiding your talents from the world, working jobs that violate your values, and silencing yourself for fear of criticism were among many of the actions presented in the passage. Afterward, we broke off into either pairs or small groups to discuss what we had just read. Surprisingly, the conversations began to flow almost effortlessly. Everyone in the room could connect to some part of the passage and had experiences to share with the group. After a few minutes, we merged back into our circle and began to share. Each person had their own insights, a new perspective to bring to the table. The conversation shifted from only discussing the passage to divulging experiences from our own lives in which we had been frozen with fear and doubt. Nearly everyone could recall a time in which they had restrained their true selves for fear of being criticized or mocked. But then there were also those who had overcome their fears and realized that our reluctance stems from nothing more than internalizing our doubts. Eventually, we arrived at a conclusion: our assumption that the people around us will react negatively to our true selves holds us back from being happy. And, people generally are not that volatile when confronted with differing opinions. Miscommunication is at the root of our negativity, and having a dialogue is the cure. We finished our discussion with the question, “What will you do differently this year?” and then called it a night. As we left, everyone seemed to feel more at ease, confident, and even relieved.

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