religion – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 25 Mar 2019 17:14:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Festival of Colors Mon, 22 May 2017 17:47:49 +0000 Holi_color_fest17_3077

Jeff Miller

Hundreds of students participated in the spirited Hindu tradition of throwing bright colored powder during Rang de Madison, hosted by the Madison Hindu Students Association in collaboration with UW–Madison’s India Students Association and Indian Graduate Students Association. Holi, celebrated by Hindus around the world, celebrates the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil. Revelers traditionally fling the bright colored powders at both friends and strangers.

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Daniel Brenner ’92 Mon, 22 May 2017 17:47:47 +0000 Rabbi_Brenner1

Photo: Ronen Tivony

It took Rabbi Daniel Brenner ’92 until now to realize that he just wants to dance.

Brenner has spent two decades finding innovative ways to connect young Jewish people with their faith. Newsweek named him one of America’s most influential rabbis for his work at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Auburn Theological Seminary, and Birthright Israel Foundation. He currently develops educational programs and trains mentors at Moving Traditions, a Jewish educational organization.

Now he’s working on a new idea for connecting kids with their culture. Brenner — also a musician, playwright, and essayist — is leading a one-person revolution to revive nearly forgotten Jewish dances. “I’m pursuing this crazy dream, bringing people together through dance and reclaiming a ritual that’s been lost,” he says.

On a fall day during his senior year at UW–Madison, Brenner was called to lead High Holiday services for a few hundred students at James Madison Park. The powerful experience compelled him to apply to rabbinical school. “Nothing is like Madison,” Brenner says. “The very land the UW was built upon is sacred. I sensed that so strongly as an undergraduate.”

Brenner embraced his time in Madison, studying philosophy, living in a Jewish co-op, playing with his band at the Mifflin Street Block Party, and performing at Ark Improvisational Theater with the late Chris Farley. “I found an incredible Jewish community, as well as people from rural Wisconsin, who were total kindred spirits,” he says.

Since earning his master’s degree and rabbinic title, Brenner has focused on talking with adolescents about faith, the art of listening, healthy debate, and pushing back against nonstop sharing on social media. And adults have plenty to learn from adolescents, Brenner insists — including how to embrace, rather than evade, intense emotions.

Brenner is tapping into his own feelings through dance. For the last year, he’s vigorously studied traditional 19th-century Jewish dances with roots in Eastern Europe’s smallest villages. Brenner’s teacher learned the custom from a dance master who survived World War II by escaping a Nazi work camp and entertaining Russian soldiers. “I love the range of emotions,” Brenner explains. “Popular dance is about happiness and sexiness. This captures longing, despair, brokenheartedness, hope.”

He’s turned the tradition into Klezmer Aerobics, an intergenerational dance and storytelling workout where, as Brenner puts it, “the 1880s meet the 1980s.” He concludes, “It’s my dream to see grandchildren and grandparents dance together, share traditions, and reconnect.”

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Unbowed Fri, 27 May 2016 14:27:24 +0000 Two days after last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, professional football teams around the United States flew French flags and observed a pregame moment of silence for the 130 victims. At Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, the tribute was broken by one fan’s bellicose outburst: “Muslims suck!”

Social media users also reported hearing chants of “Death to Muslims.” And for Kenosha native Naheed Qureshi ’94, a Muslim and diehard Packers fan, the words cut deep.

“They were talking to me,” says Qureshi, who was not at the November 15 game. The commentary, however, was clearly audible to millions of fans watching the nationally televised broadcast.

“The words were talking to my family and my parents, who spent fifty years of their lives educating generations of nurses who contribute to Wisconsin to this day,” she adds. “It’s really hard to hear those things. Football is something I do to take a break, so it was painful.”

Naheed Qureshi ’94

“This isn’t a Muslim problem. This is an American problem. This is a question of our values and who we are,” says Naheed Qureshi ’94. “It’s become completely acceptable to say the most vile, bigoted things about Muslims.” Timothy Archibald

The incident was a trenchant reminder of the challenges that Qureshi, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, faces as deputy director of Oakland, California–based Muslim Advocates. The legal advocacy and educational organization works on the front lines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths through high-impact lawsuits, community education, and policy advocacy.

Muslim Advocates focuses on ending racial profiling, strengthening the nation’s network of more than 1,300 Muslim charities — including soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and medical clinics — and countering hate. Notably, the nonprofit filed a lawsuit in 2012 — later joined by the Center for Constitutional Rights — against the City of New York, accusing police of spying on Muslims at home, work, school, and at mosques. The case is pending.

Qureshi helped found Muslim Advocates in 2005, when she was an organizer for the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, DC. There, she worked on matters related to racial profiling, voting rights, the Patriot Act, and post-9/11 civil rights violations. Prior to that, Qureshi was recruited — after earning her law degree at Georgetown University — to join the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, where she helped shape the Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash. In that role, she organized community forums around the country, fielded discrimination complaints, and was a liaison to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian American communities.

The challenges haven’t abated, and Muslim Advocates’ stature in the national zeitgeist has become only more pronounced in recent months.

After Paris, and a subsequent attack last December in which an extremist husband-wife tandem killed fourteen public employees in San Bernardino, California, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States more than tripled, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California. There were eighty offenses in the four months following the Paris attacks, ranging from death threats and physical violence, to vandalism and arson attacks on mosques.

Fear has gripped Muslim communities, where parents have complained their children have been called “terrorists” or “Osama bin Laden” by classmates, Qureshi says. The same parents have vocally fretted about their children’s college and job prospects.

“The immediate aftermath of 9/11 is quite different from what we’re dealing with today,” Qureshi says. “There were hate crimes and it was quite challenging, but there were also lots of Americans coming together and supporting each other. There was a feeling that we were all in this together. I don’t think it registered with very many people that there are Muslims here. They didn’t speak about a Muslim problem.”

Fifteen years later, she laments that today’s climate “is beyond the bounds of my imagination.”

But Qureshi is unbowed. Her legal aspirations were shaped by a different time, when television fed the notion that justice always prevails. “I first wanted to be a lawyer because of Perry Mason,” she says with a laugh. “I used to watch repeats with my mom.”

But her commitment to fairness and justice can’t be summed up by a nearly sixty-year-old TV show. It was at UW–Madison where the political science major experienced an intellectual coming of age. Taking a pair of constitutional law classes from noted professor Donald Downs was particularly influential. “He pushed me to think about things from every different angle, even going to places that were uncomfortable,” Qureshi says. “He challenged my views in a way that forced me to question everything I took for granted. He challenged my basic ideas of what’s right and wrong with our system, and what do rights mean versus what does right and wrong mean? That taught me to become a different kind of thinker.”

Just as she is now, Qureshi was very much the political operative during her days at the UW. She organized a coalition of disparate student groups that sponsored educational events on the Bosnian War and genocide that was raging half a world away.

“That experience contributed to my education about justice and informing people about issues,” she says. “It was powerful to see all sorts of unusual partners come together to speak out against a great injustice. When you get together and start working on a common cause, you start to focus on how much more you have in common.”

It’s the same ethos that Qureshi brings to her work today at Muslim Advocates, which involves managing program staff and fostering relationships with other groups fighting to maintain civil rights.

Muslim Advocates also has aligned with the NAACP in pushing support for the End Racial Profiling Act. The proposed legislation, which would affect local law-enforcement agencies, has yet to gain traction in Congress. The organizations did, however, help sway the U.S. Justice Department in 2014 to expand rules preventing FBI agents from considering national origin and religion, among other categories, when deciding whether to open a case.

“Naheed played a major role in helping us frame that,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington, DC, bureau. “She works in a respectful and noncombative way. She’s assertive and thoughtful and very diplomatic in her approach. She’s been a fantastic asset and ally. She has a gift of being able to see, almost immediately, the similarities between the various communities she’s speaking with, and that makes a huge difference.”

Qureshi’s collaborations extend to what, in the wider world, doesn’t always make for easy alliances. She works closely with Bend the Arc, a New York–based Jewish nonprofit that advocates and organizes for a more just and equal society. Arielle Gingold, the group’s associate director, calls Qureshi “one of my closest colleagues and most trusted partners in the work that we do. She teaches me constantly. We have a great dialogue about our different religions, and I learn from her and she learns from me.”

Bend the Arc was among nearly fifty civil rights, interfaith, community, and advocacy groups that joined Muslim Advocates last September to urge Republican and Democratic party leadership to hold party members and candidates accountable for promoting religious bigotry.

“In the U.S., there is a lot of common ground and a lot of really great and important work being done between the Muslim and Jewish communities, and the Christian community as well,” Gingold says, praising Qureshi for her “contagious passion for the work that she does.”

“We have a strong interfaith partnership advocating for the rights of our communities as a whole, and defending each other’s rights when they are attacked,” she says.

Qureshi derives many of her sensibilities from her parents. “They told my sister and me that we were Muslims, but that we should cherish and value everyone’s background and faith,” she says. Her mother and father met at the University of Idaho, where both were pursuing their doctorates. They went on to teach biology and chemistry in the nursing program at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Qureshi also draws inspiration from the late anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, and musicians such as Peter Gabriel and U2 frontman Bono, who, after the 2005 bombings of London trains and buses, pointed to a headband emblazoned with the word “Coexist,” and uttered: “Jesus, Jew, Mohammed — it’s true. All sons of Abraham.”

Even Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers draws plaudits from Qureshi. During a postgame news conference on the day of the fan’s intemperate catcall, Rodgers, unbidden by reporter questioning, volunteered that the comment “disappointed” him and “it’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that … puts us in the position we’re in today.”

Qureshi says these are some of the people who give her hope. “It’s not the kind of society they want their children to grow up in. This isn’t a Muslim problem. This is an American problem. This is a question of our values and who we are. We shouldn’t have an environment where it’s okay to talk about Muslims that way.”

She chides a political system in which elected officials and political hopefuls have made anti-Muslim remarks, with no accountability. While Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed blocking all Muslims from entering the United States, along with shutting down mosques and surveilling Muslims, former candidate Ben Carson asserted the United States should not elect a Muslim president.

“I have moments when I’m very afraid of what’s happening and what I see right in front of me,” Qureshi says. “A lot of people get really discouraged. They’ll say there’s no point to what we’re doing, because this is so overwhelming and we can’t make any progress. It’s become completely acceptable to say the most vile, bigoted things about Muslims.”

But, Qureshi notes optimistically, such behaviors have riled non-Muslims as much as members of her own faith.

“This has crossed the line for a lot of people, and they have made the decision that they can’t stay silent.”

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A Leap of Faith Mon, 11 Nov 2013 17:31:37 +0000


With 9/11 as a catalyst, a campus institute encourages students to let down their guard and talk about religion.

We grow up being told that certain topics aren’t considered polite conversation at the dinner table. But each month, a group of UW students gathers to take a calculated risk. They talk about religion.

People may avoid discussing religion for fear of offending others or because they are wary of defending their beliefs in the face of skepticism or outright ignorance. But the students involved in these conversations — raised in different faiths, coming from diverse cultures, and following different academic paths — share a hunger for something that has been hard to find on campus: a chance to talk with others their age who also regard their faith as an essential part of who they are.

These interfaith discussions are central to the work and mission of the UW’s Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, established to promote mutual understanding and civility among Jews, Christians, and Muslims after tensions arose following 9/11.

“I have always viewed [the institute] as a safe space to ask the hard questions,” says Laura Partain ’13, a Christian who was an undergraduate fellow with the institute as a sophomore and continued to attend its interfaith forums while studying Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, and Rabbinic Hebrew, and earning a degree in religious studies and a certificate in Middle East studies.

The phrase safe space comes up frequently when participants describe these forums. Students demonstrate their methods of prayer, talk about why they wear certain articles of clothing, and even discuss aspects of their religion that they don’t like. Students within the same faith sometimes have fundamental disagreements about controversial issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

“Whenever I would talk about faith before joining Lubar, it would always be among other Muslims,” says Lamin Manneh ’13, who came to the UW from The Gambia. “I would never get a chance to really sit down and ask a Christian, ‘What do you think?’ You’re shy, you’re wondering, ‘Are they going to be insulted?’ ”

A Part of Civil Life

Each year the Lubar Institute accepts eight or nine undergraduate fellows who organize the forums, which draw about two dozen students, and take part in interfaith service projects in the Madison community. They also advise house fellows in campus residence halls about how to talk with students who have questions about faith-related topics such as their roommates’ unfamiliar religious rituals or dress.

“These aren’t deep theological questions, but they’re the kinds of personal interactions that occur all the time,” says Charles Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies and the institute’s director.

During the past summer, the institute staffed a table alongside other student organizations at SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration), and handed out lists of both religious studies courses and the more than two dozen student organizations connected to religion, including the campus chapter of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics. They also offered M&Ms printed with images of a cross, a star and crescent, and the Star of David.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share common origins and values, and their histories have been intertwined for thirteen hundred years, but avoiding these connections creates little chance of peace in a world riddled with conflict that often springs from religious differences.

“We no longer have the luxury of being isolated from each other. … We had better learn how to navigate and negotiate those differences, because otherwise, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble,” Cohen says. “9/11 drove that insight home in one way, and I think it’s being repeated in lots of other less dramatic ways all the time.”

But what role can religion play at a public university?

“We are obviously not proselytizing. We have no interest in that; we shouldn’t be doing that,” Cohen says. “But religion is certainly an important part of American civil life, and so, I think it should be part of the civil life of a major campus.”

Two Lives

Some students of faith describe their UW existence as one of living two lives: their campus life and their religious life.

“If you’re not part of a religious community on campus, you will probably never talk about religion, unless it’s to do with politics,” says Stephen Buting x’14, a Catholic who served as an institute fellow last year and sees a future role for himself in the Catholic Church — either as a layperson or in the priesthood.

The notion that college students’ faith identities should not be ignored is expressed often by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, who spoke on campus last year as part of the UW’s involvement in a White House initiative to foster interfaith dialogue and service at colleges and universities.

“In the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the West, at a time of global religious conflict, how people from different faith backgrounds get along and what they do together is a crucial question,” Patel wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And so it must be a central question for our public universities as well.”

While there are no data on the faith practices or religious beliefs of UW students, during the last decade, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has explored how students change during the college years and what role college plays in facilitating the development of their spiritual and religious qualities. More than half of the students in the nationwide survey rated integrating spirituality into their lives as very important or essential, a level not seen since the 1950s. Nearly 75 percent said they believed in God, and two-thirds said they prayed.

Based on Trust

Ulrich Rosenhagen, a lecturer in religious studies and history and assistant director of the Lubar Institute, leads its weekly forums and advises the student fellows. Rosenhagen is an ordained Lutheran minister from Germany and his wife is Jewish, a biography that makes him feel right at home in Wisconsin with its rich German heritage, and as a mentor to students learning how to have interfaith discussions. With his seminary training and PhD, he has two titles: reverend and doctor. But, he was quick to say at the start of one forum, “The reverend is more important than the doctor.”

During a forum, you are just as likely to hear someone passionately discuss why St. Francis of Assisi is his favorite saint as you are to hear someone else quote a Morgan Freeman line from Evan Almighty, a movie comedy in which he plays God. But the students tackle some tough and tense topics in the forum, too.

“The more interesting ones are the ones where people actually get real — where there isn’t just everyone saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ ” Buting says.

In recent years, the group watched the movie A Jihad for Love, a controversial documentary about Islam and homosexuality. Another forum held in a previous year discussed the battle over a cartoon of Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper. An agnostic student argued for free speech, while Muslim students “appealed to a sense of sacredness,” Rosenhagen says.

“We had kind of a nice clash,” he adds. “But you can have these conflicts — you can have these issues and these clashes — as long as you know you can trust each other. Students sense this right from the start: the forum works only because it’s based on trust.”

The trust among the students solidifies during the forum’s annual weekend of prayer, when the students attend one another’s worship services: a Muslim prayer service on Friday night at a mosque, a Saturday Jewish Shabbat service at a synagogue, and a Sunday morning service at a Christian church.

Buting likens the intense experience to bringing someone into your home. “It makes it much more personal and intimate,” he says. “Bring them into your world; then you have a point of reference. People’s worldview makes a whole lot more sense.”

In some cases, students become visibly uncomfortable, but others are struck by the things that seem very familiar in a faith they had perceived as very different from their own.

“All of the specifics were different — different languages, different leaders of services — but they’re all, boiled down to it, very similar,” says Ben Agatston x’15, a Jewish junior who joined the institute hoping to form a more diverse group of friends. “And I think that until you go to all three, you don’t really realize the similarities.”

Manneh, the Gambia native, started attending the forums during his sophomore year after two friends from the Muslim Students Association invited him to attend a Catholic Mass with them. He was hooked and was accepted as a fellow during his junior year. He graduated in May with degrees in history and political science and is making plans to study African history in graduate school, but he hopes to start a similar forum for children in his country, where there is a Muslim majority and a Christian minority.

“We don’t have tensions — it’s very peaceful between the two groups, and we share the same culture — but when we talk about each other’s religions, it’s not talked about positively at all,” he says. “You don’t understand it; you don’t know why they do it. You don’t see the essence of it, so you can’t appreciate it.”

Giving Credit

At the UW, the monthly discussions give students the opportunity to explore more of those connections — and where they diverge.

Last year’s final forum, for example, focused on the relationship between religion and the environment. Rosenhagen ceded much of that session to the students, with representatives from each of the three faiths highlighting how their religious traditions are tied to environmentalism. Buting took the lead on Christianity and discussed Franciscan spirituality, which focuses on living in poverty and renouncing worldly goods, as a potential means to protect the earth. At St. Paul’s Catholic Church, located on the UW’s Library Mall, that concept sparked a student group, Vita Pura, which encourages students to live more simply. Carly Braun x’15, a Catholic student who helped found the group, says it’s focused on small steps to help the planet, such as taking one cold shower a week. She jokes that she can’t get into that shower unless she reminds herself, “This is for Jesus.”

Rachel Lerman ’13 explained Earth-based Jewish holidays, including one she called “Israeli Arbor Day” [Tu Bishvat]. She also recounted spending the previous summer on a three-month fellowship at

a center focused on Judaism and environmentalism. There, Lerman connected her Jewish faith with those concerns, living in a tent and working on an organic farm to grow the food she needed.

“It’s consciously thinking about what we really need to live,” she said.

Saad Siddiqui ’13 presented from the Islamic perspective, telling the group that the concept of stewardship is inherent in the Qur’an and referencing a verse that he cited as, “We offered the trust unto the heavens and earth and the hills.”

The sessions are what alumni Sheldon ’51, LLB ’53 and Marianne x’55 Lubar had in mind when they established the institute to promote mutual understanding and civility among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Although the student fellows do not receive academic credit for their participation, at the end of their yearlong experience, they give credit — by writing reflections (see sidebars) about how the forums helped them learn about their own beliefs and those of others, and how they’ve grown as people and critical thinkers.

“I originally went in kind of with the wrong idea, because I had come to this campus and had to defend my faith so many times [when asked], ‘What do you believe? Why do you believe this?’ ” says Partain, who today is at the University of Texas at Austin, studying conflict and conflict resolution with a focus on the role of religious identities. “I grew into just really wanting to hear other people’s stories and to hear where they came from.”

Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.

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