New Muslim, Hindu advisers seek to mentor
Following announcements made last year and over the summer, three religious leaders on campus — Coordinator for Muslim Life Sohaib Sultan, Coordinator for Hindu Life Vineet Chander and Chabad chaplain Eitan Webb — have begun their first weeks in their University-appointed positions.
Sultan’s appointment follows the departure of the first Muslim chaplain, Khalid Latif, two summers ago. Chander’s appointment marks the debut of a Hindu chaplaincy pilot program at the University. Webb, on the other hand, has been working with the University Chabad community since 2002 but was only granted official recognition last May.
By promoting interfaith relations and participation in individual faiths, the new coordinators will each serve multiple roles on campus, acting as administrators, advocates, counselors and visible members of the community.
All three men believe that their role is to provide counseling and on-campus activism to complement the social functions of student religious groups.
For Sultan and Chander, this primarily constitutes work with the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the Princeton Hindu Satsangam (PHS), a Hindu community on campus, through weekly meetings and sponsored activities.
“Vineet has done a lot to facilitate our beginning-of-the-year activities, our freshman social and our devotional ceremonies,” PHS co-president Raj Ranade ’10 said.
MSA president Wasim Shiliwala ’09 has worked closely with the Muslim chaplain on event planning and said that “he adds a spiritual leadership that has hitherto been lacking.”
Both students reiterated that the student groups operate largely independently of the chaplains and that the services of counseling and faith guidance are inherently different from the services that student groups provide.
“One of the challenges at Princeton is that [students are] being pulled and pushed in every direction, so part of the challenge is constantly trying to produce high-quality programs so the students continue to come back,” Sultan said.
For Chander, being the first University-appointed adviser for Hindu students can offer great opportunities but also present great challenges. “Starting from scratch is certainly a daunting task, but also an exciting one,” Chander said in an e-mail. Chander said his parents immigrated to the United States almost 40 years ago, when Hinduism had not yet become a common religion in this country.
“To the average non-Hindu Princeton student, much of the Hindu faith and culture remains a mystery or a patchwork of Hollywood stereotypes and exotica,” he noted, explaining that he considers interfaith outreach, dialogue and mutual education to be essential components of his position.
Sultan sees a need for a medium through which Muslim students can answer questions about their faith without feeling cornered by their peers. “A lot of questions about Islam can be overwhelming for Muslim students, especially for those of strong faith,” he said. Sultan said he hopes that educational events and seminars will satisfy the intellectual thirst of Princeton students and allow for open but non-confrontational dialogue.
Chander and Sultan have already planned a Hindu-Muslim Unity Iftar dinner on Sept. 21.
A second priority is the development of a sense of community. Chander noted his concern that Hinduism can often become a religion practiced only on holidays. He plans to institute weekly events that make Hinduism a regular part of student life. Sultan has also made initial efforts to create a pluralistic Muslim community.
“The best chaplains are those who spend the least amount of time in their office,” Sultan said, citing advice from Associate Dean of Religious Life Paul Raushenbush.
"These days, just about everyone talks about ‘religious diversity,’ — but there is a world of difference between merely talking about it and doing it,” said Chander, who went on to praise the steps that the University has taken in the past few years to promote an accepting attitude toward religious life.
Sultan has been encouraged by the growth of an actively practicing Muslim community on campus, citing the growth of weekly prayer groups from single digits last spring to 70 regular participants.
All three leaders look forward to increasing participation in the religious community on campus through guest speakers and weekly events. Chander conducts “Chai Time” on Mondays and Wednesdays in Murray-Dodge, where students can fraternize and ask questions in an informal setting. In October, he will lead a weekly study group to explore the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text.
As this academic year began in the middle of Ramadan, Sultan has already organized a nightly breaking of the fast and Friday prayer and discussion nights. When Ramadan ends, Sultan will continue to lead a Friday congregation every week.
While Chander and Sultan both have offices in Murray-Dodge Hall, Webb organizes Chabad events from 15 Edwards Pl., where he lives with his wife Gitty and their three children. “We provide a home,” said Gitty, adding that their personal motto is: “Every Jew deserves a home away from home.”
Webb conducts weekly Shabbat dinners, and his wife leads an all-women’s Shabbat dinner once a semester. Webb noted that though information about Chabad has traditionally spread by word of mouth, their listing in the orientation calendar has attracted more freshmen than in years past.
Kosher food has been available for more than a year in the U-Store after requests made by Webb. Chander also hopes to meet the needs of the many Hindu students who require specially prepared vegetarian food. Sultan has taken steps toward increased halal food access and has also requested that washing stations be installed in two Murray-Dodge bathrooms for washing before prayer.
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