Web Exclusives: On the Campus

November 8, 2006:

Fasting at Princeton

By Joy N. Karugu '09

The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and the Islamic month of Ramadan both fell in the month of October, providing an opportunity for Muslim and Jewish students to exchange perspectives on a practice that is shared by both traditions: fasting during the holy days.

In late September, the Muslim Students Association and the Center for Jewish Life held their first formal interfaith dialogue, with students breaking into small groups to discuss the similarities and differences within their observance of fasting.

"I know lots of Jewish students who have wanted to talk to students in other faiths about fasting in their traditions," Jonah Perlin '07 said. "But approaching the other side – that's always difficult. Since this kind of formal dialogue legitimized the talk, it really helped encourage interaction."

For observant Jewish students, the 25-hour fast from sundown to sundown on Yom Kippur is "incredibly grueling," Perlin said. But the Princeton community provides a strong support system for those who fast, he said. "The simple fact is that fasting alone is not safe: The problem is that if you don't feel well, no one is around to say, hey, have some water," he said.

Muslim students who fast each day during the month of Ramadan from the break of dawn to sunset said that juggling studies and classes is not easy. "The first few days are always difficult, unless you fast regularly," Wasim Shiliwala '09 said. "Classes take their toll during Ramadan, especially when you stay up all night doing work and the next day you can't sip on coffee to stay up during class."

Students must wake up before dawn during Ramadan to fit in a meal before the fast begins anew. But some said that the typical Princeton student's schedule of working late into the night can help in adjusting to the schedule of Ramadan. "For me, the schedule remains the same. I usually do not have breakfast, and I stay up really late, so during Ramadan I just have dinner and another light meal before I sleep," said Saed Al-Shonnar '08.

For Jewish students, attending religious services during the 10-day period of the High Holy Days that culminate with Yom Kippur can lead to missed classes and the need to make up work. "I think the University is supportive, but Princeton is so academically challenging that it is hard to miss any classes," said Rabbi Julie Roth, director of the Center for Jewish Life. "It's a hard choice for students sometimes whether to go to services or to go to class."

Beyond concerns about food and sleep during their holy days, both Muslims and Jews said a major challenge is the spiritual fast – refraining from negative talk and actions, and spending more time on prayer and performing good deeds.

"Fasting is a means to an end," said Rabbi Julie Roth, director of the Center for Jewish Life. "During fasting you really must refrain from more than just eating – you need to focus on your spirit, your mind, and your mortality and think about how you will use a new year of your life as the gift it is from God."

One Muslim student echoed that sentiment, stating how it was often difficult to retain the benefits of the fast once it is over. "I'm really used to fasting, so that has never been a problem," Kafayat Babajide '08 said. "Theoretically Ramadan should be cathartic, where every year you try to purge your sins. But I have some things that I return to doing after Ramadan ends, which isn't how it should be."

Both Muslim and Jewish students said that one of the best things about fasting on campus was the opportunity to break the fast with other students and faculty.

"I have found solace in attending all the MSA iftars [fast-breaking events] I can, and in the process getting to know as many of the other Muslim students that I can," said Umar Javed '09.

Added Nathaniel Fintz '06: "The thing that really stays vivid in my mind is being at the Center for Jewish Life during the break-fast with everyone. It is just such a cohesive community experience."

Joy N. Karugu '09 is from Hudson, N.H. She plans to major in comparative literature.