Reena Naik is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies Economics, Portuguese, and Political Science. On campus, she is President of Panther Global Village, an organization that focuses on fostering strong relations between international and domestic students. Reena is also Vice-President of the Hindu Students Council, an organization that aims to spread awareness and knowledge about Hinduism. She is an Undergraduate Mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research, and volunteers for the English Language Institute. She is pictured (far left) at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. When I first heard about the Israel Uncovered program from a past participant, the one aspect I was the most curious about was religious connection. I wanted to be able to answer the question “What is your connection to Israel” in a way that tied in my own culture and religion. As an active leader in the Hindu community at the University of Pittsburgh, I have always been curious about the relations between Hinduism and Judaism. My "aha!" moment came when I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Upon arriving, I felt a strong sense of community and pride. We entered into the main area where we witnessed several groups singing and dancing. The idea of “Shabbat” became clear to me to as I stood with my peers in this holy site. On this day, people set aside their worries to celebrate with a community. I felt a strong sense of unification during our visit.
This sentiment was furthered when I was able to touch the Western Wall. For me, this moment encapsulated how I felt about traveling to Israel. The blending of religion, community, and peace was a beautiful image to witness. After writing my prayer, I entered the right side of the Kotel. I saw women reading the Torah, singing in a circle, and thoughtfully writing prayers. The experience was both individualistic and public: I was able to observe the sacred place through my own perspective but I was surrounded by a diverse community. As I looked to my right I saw other students from the trip who came from other religions such as Islam, Catholicism, and Hinduism. It was beautiful to see people come together to celebrate a religious tradition. During our trip we were also able to visit sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock. We learned about the history of these sites and what they meant to each religion. My knowledge and awareness of religion and culture expanded immensely during this trip. I had a great opportunity to bring this knowledge back with me to Pitt’s campus.
This past Tuesday, the first ever “Diwannakuh” was held at the University of Pittsburgh. This was one of the biggest collaboration events on campus between two religious organizations. The Hindu Students Council and the Hillel Jewish University Center came together to celebrate Diwali and Hannukah, two very important religious holidays that use light as a main symbol. I discovered many similarities between the two religions during the planning of this event. With about sixty-five guests in attendance, this event was a huge success. It goes to show that knowledge and awareness are the biggest tools in increasing tolerance. The best way to learn about a religion is to educate yourself about it and that was exactly what I did through Israel Uncovered.
Above: Friday night at the Western Wall (Photo Courtesy Richard Lu)