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Sarah Livingston, the Executive Director of Hillel at Ohio University poses for a portrait outside of the Hillel House on Nov. 9, 2021.  Hillel at Ohio University serves the campus community in ares of Jewish culture, education, history, social service, Israel advocacy and communal experiences. The house has been home to Hillel since 1966.

Religion at OU fosters togetherness, spiritual freedom

After a visit to the Ohio University Hillel house, Alex Deutchman, a junior studying criminology, hugged Sarah Livingston, the executive director of Hillel at OU, waved goodbye and said, “Love you, mom!” 

Although the two are not related and Deutchman is just one of over 100 students Livingston oversees, one would never know it. 

Hillel at OU is a part of the larger Hillel International, which is an organization that aims to provide a lifelong commitment to the Jewish faith, culture, community and teachings, Livingston said. Hillel at OU has upheld these ideals since it first opened in 1939.

Livingston said the OU Hillel foundation hosts frequent events, including a weekly Shabbat service and dinner every Friday at 6 p.m., inviting all Jewish students on campus to participate and have a safe space to both practice their faith and gain a sense of community.

The closest synagogue to Athens is over an hour away in Columbus, Livingston said. The lack of available places of worship for Jewish students is what makes Hillel at OU so crucial, she added.

Livingston estimated there to be somewhere between 400-500 Jewish students on campus, making up under 2.5% of the population. Because of the small size of the Jewish community on campus, Livingston emphasized the importance of creating a sense of comfort within the Hillel house.

“Hillel is intrinsically just a safe space for Jewish students to be able to be Jewish,” Livingston said. “We just want to make sure they can do whatever it is that fills their heart up.”

Sue Erlewine, assistant director of Athens KTC, a Tibetan Buddhist organization with a focus on spirituality and meditation, said the organization hosts routine meditation as well as basic Buddhist philosophy classes. 

Erlewine started Athens KTC 17 years ago in her living room. She invited all citizens of Athens, including OU students, to practice Buddhism in a group setting, providing an opportunity that was not available in or around Athens before Erlewine started the organization.

The Buddhist meditation practiced by Erlewine’s organization provides students a way to control and manage their anxiety, whether it pertains to schoolwork or anything that could be considered stress-inducing, she said.

The meditation and the overall practice of Buddhism has made Erlewine a calmer, more relaxed person, and she said the students involved as well as other members of Athens KTC feel the same way.

In a similar way, Julia Kelley, a first-year master’s student studying vocal performance and music therapy, said she uses her faith in God as a way to reassure herself that she can overcome the stressors in her life. She said practicing Catholicism and her faith in God have acted as another support system for her.

Although she attends the Sunday mass at Christ the King University Parish, Kelley primarily practices privately and is not affiliated with any religious groups on campus.

Kelley said practicing religion in college can be difficult at times because she has to hold herself accountable in order to not fall behind in her worship.

“I’ve been on my own making sure every week that I go to church and continue to practice my faith,” Kelley said.

Kelley believes going to church every week has provided consistency while also giving her the freedom to practice her beliefs individually.

Erlewine said her organization and Buddhism in general are not very demanding in their nature. Anyone can come to a session and take away from it whatever they like, and their experience will not be defined for them.

“(Our goal is to) make the Dharma, which is the teachings of the Buddha, available,” Erlewine said. “People can come in and take what they want (and) leave what they don’t want.”

Some of the activities Hillel puts on are specifically catered toward worship, but Livingston said a lot of what the foundation does is cultural or not related to Judaism at all, such as their blanket making event for charity. She said these events specifically are meant to form friendships and bonds between the organization’s members.

Deutchman said she has met her closest friends through the Hillel foundation, and these connections are what she treasures most about her time with Hillel.

“There are people in that building that I know I can go to … and they will always be there for me,” Deutchman said. “The Hillel was just that thing that brought us together, but it’s not the thing that makes our friendship or breaks our friendship.”

Livingston emphasized the necessity Jewish students have for a place on campus where they do not need to worry about being persecuted or judged for their religious beliefs.

“Judaism is so much more than a religion; Judaism is a culture,” Livingston said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s your history. It’s your family’s traditions. It’s so much more than just praying to God.”

The close, lifelong bonds that form between people who share a faith and culture are a testament to the impact that religion can have on the students of OU. Though many choose to practice their faith privately or through other methods of spirituality, religion is being used on campus in ways that benefit students as well as the bonds they create.


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