For six years, Julie Goell felt isolated as a Jewish student on campus. She kept her religion to herself until she could no longer bear the solitude.
One day she walked into Portland Student Life in hopes of joining the Jewish student group, Hillel.
She learned the University currently does not have any such group, so Goell decided to take matters into her own hands and is now in the process of organizing the first ever Hillel at USM.
An increase in student interest in religion has created the need for religious outlets. A Catholic chaplain has also recently begun meeting with students on campus. The University provides a meeting place for religious activities, but does not provide any financial funding for the groups.
Hillel offers a range of opportunities for Jewish involvement on campus, including social, educational, cultural and religious programming. It is also the largest Jewish student organization in the world, with over 400 active campuses.
Goell is planning to hold a kumzitz at 4 p.m. on April 16 to find out how many people are interested in joining Hillel. The word kumzitz is Yiddish and means, “come sit down and talk for a while.” The meeting will be relaxed and informal and it will give Goell an idea of what to do next in her planning.
“Our basic quest right now is to find students. We don’t know the number of students who are Jewish or who is interested. So we are putting together a little event to see what happens,” Goell said.
Goell has many ideas for Hillel.
“We are seeking to provide a center for cultural and religious life. In this time of tremendous renewal, Hillel would be there for students to find a community for their Jewish identity.”
Some of her ideas include showing films and hosting lectures and discussions on the Holocaust a coffee klatch, dances, hosting Shabbas dinners on the Jewish Sabbath and locating host families for students for Passover Seder and Shabbas. One of her current incentives in attracting students is creating a Mitzvah (“good deed”) club. A group of students could undertake and support a charity. Goell feels that students could rally around this particular incentive.
Another piece of Goell’s planning includes interfaith discussions. Hillel said the kumzitz is open to everyone, students faculty and staff of all denominations.
“Education equals tolerance in my mind,” Goell said. “So if you educate people about Judaism, you welcome them to become more tolerant in some way.”
Goell has been working with Rita Kissen, associate professor of teacher education. Together they have sought advice from Andrea Thompson McCall, assistant to the vice president for Student Development for Chaplaincy and Interfaith Programs and Services.
“I’ve been at USM as a teacher educator for the past 10 years, and have been especially interested in helping students understand the meaning of diversity for us up here in Maine,” said Kissen.
McCall advises students in establishing student religious organizations. McCall also did some outreach work, sending letters to local clergy and lay leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions, explaining her role as “a conduit for the larger community and students.”
McCall explained that in the past couple of years various incidents occurred where “students decided to identify me as a resource of information.”
Various religious groups have also contacted McCall and expressed interest in offering support to students, but until recently USM had no vehicle to do that.
As a result of her outreach work, McCall was able to bring a Catholic chaplain to USM.
Brother Richard Crawley visits the Woodbury Campus Center on the Portland campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 12 and 1 p.m. The Catholic Diocese of Maine funds his work with students. He also counsels students at Bowdoin College.
“You can talk to me about anything,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. The only power a chaplain has is relational. Once you get to know somebody, students feel safe and begin to talk. My role is to have as much exposure as possible and to have them contact me. I just follow them really.”
Students of various denominations have spoken to Crawley on a variety of different issues, including marriage, the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, and holidays and what they represent. He also works with students in crisis.
“Any teacher will tell you that good students are willing to learn, he said. “And I’m learning too, going along and staying in touch with modern day issues. I think that something that energizes me most is students challenging me to look at how my faith relates to modern day social challenges.”
Another part to McCall’s interfaith activities is helping various religious groups find a space to meet for a round-table interfaith discussion. Both Crawley and Goell are interested in the idea. McCall would like to host group meetings where various denominations can share experiences and learn about other religions.
“This needs to be a place where students can explore who they are and who they want to be,” McCall said.
Currently, USM provides a meeting space for three student religious groups on campus, the Pagan Students Association and two Christian associations, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Cross-Seekers. These groups are recognized by the Board of Student Organizations. In the past there was also a Muslim student group, but it recently dissolved for the lack of student interest.
Goell, McCall and Crawley agree they all have the same goals. They want to provide a secure outlet for students who are seeking religious services.
“A campus is a place where it’s easy to lose who you are,” said Goell. McCall also stresses the idea that, “We can’t forget that spirituality is part of every human being.”
Staff Writer Sherry Whittemore can be contacted at: [email protected]