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Rice students talk religious holidays

Illustrated by Ndidi Nwosu

By Shiyu Miao     10/5/21 10:20pm

There are different stories behind Diwali, a Hindu holiday that usually falls in October or November. One such tale describes the god Krishna’s defeat of a demon on that day and another tells of the return of the god-king Rama after defeating a demon. 

Regardless of the story behind the holiday, Diwali is about the triumph of good over evil, according to Will Rice College junior Vaishnavi Movva. She said Hindus celebrate by praying in the temple for prosperity for the year and lighting up little lamps called “diyas” outside their homes.

Rice has a diverse student body with many religious beliefs like Movva’s. The Thresher talked to nine students about observing religious holidays and practicing their faiths at Rice.

Festive occasions

Movva said she also celebrates the Hindu festival Navaratri, which translates into “Nine Nights.” Movva said Navaratri honors the female aspect of Hinduism, and each one of the nine days is dedicated to a different goddess.

According to Movva, the Garba dance, which may involve 2,000 to 3,000 people each night, is one of the major parts of Navaratri. Movva said she enjoyed attending a large Garba night co-hosted by South Asian Society and the University of Houston her freshman year.

“It was a really nice way to spend time with people on campus ... and people out in Houston with [a] similar [religious] focus,” Movva said.

Alina Naqvi (Will Rice ’21), the former co-president of Rice Muslim Student Association, said President Leebron held his annual dinner for the MSA, outdoors and socially distanced, at his home last semester. According to Naqvi, it was the first time in several years that Ramadan occurred during the school year, so last semester’s dinner started as an iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at sunset. 

Fayiz Faruk, vice president of the MSA, said he enjoyed relaxing with the MSA and meeting new members at Leebron’s dinner.

“We were served various delicious foods and were able to share many conversations with each other as well as President Leebron, which was delightful,” Faruk, a Duncan College junior, said.

Ava Fradlin Ryan, vice president of Jewish Studies Student Association, said that she celebrated Rosh Hashanah from Sept. 6 to 8 this year. According to Mark Helman, president of Chabad Student Jewish Life, Rosh Hashanah, which commemorates the creation of the world, is the first day of the year in the Jewish calendar, and it is a two-day holiday in the United States. Fradlin Ryan said she made her New Year’s resolutions and then went to Chabad Student Jewish Life, one of the two Jewish organizations on campus.

Brandon Ba, a Baker College senior, said his family celebrates the Buddhist festivals Kathina in October and Waso in July, which both involve donating robes to monks. Ba said his family goes to a monastery either in Austin or Houston and makes donations for electricity, general upkeep or new facilities.

“Being a monk, you’re heavily dependent on the donations of others,” Ba said. 


Religious holidays involve not only festive celebrations; some also require fasting from food and drink. During Ramadan, Muslims do not consume food and water from sunset to sunrise in order to focus on prayer and contemplation, according to Naqvi. She said the last Ramadan fell partially during the school year, so she and other Muslim students had to attend classes while fasting.

“I adjusted my study schedule so that I did most of my work after breaking my fast so that I was able to concentrate better,” Naqvi said. “As difficult as it was, especially taking finals while fasting, Ramadan teaches you about patience, so I was able to get through it.”

Faruk said late-night exams and lack of Zabiha halal food options made fasting at Rice difficult. According to Faruk, he often had to break his fast in an extremely quick manner while taking a final exam. He said dehydration and feelings of hunger can make the first few days of Ramadan particularly challenging. 

Faruk said he was able to break his fast with fellow Muslims at Duncan and occasionally with the whole MSA. Throughout Ramadan, the MSA occasionally went out to eat breakfast at restaurants or cooked some meals together to eat in the early morning before fasting started, Faruk said.

Naqvi said that she lived at home last semester, so she had no problem getting her meals before sunrise and after sunset during Ramadan. Faruk, who was living on campus, said that for dinner, he had to grab food while the serveries were open and eat later, after sunset. Faruk said MSA members were able to request breakfast snack packs including granola and fruit from H&D staff and chefs at their respective servery. 

“We were trying to get some accommodations from Rice, but we weren’t able to get too much,” Faruk said. “That was definitely hard for us during Ramadan. I think I definitely had to go outside and get my own groceries and stuff just to prepare for Ramadan.”

Fradlin Ryan, a Wiess College sophomore, said she has fasted for Yom Kippur, which means “day of atonement” in Hebrew. Fradlin Ryan said Yom Kippur is about repenting for sins and getting a clean slate for the new year, which typically involves many hours of prayer services and a 25-hour-long fast. 

“Dry [fasting] is what you are supposed to do, but many do wet fasts, meaning [they take] black coffee and water,” Fradlin Ryan said. “I personally did a dry fast, so no food or water, because it makes me feel more connected to my faith.”

Fradlin Ryan said she had fasted for Yom Kippur five times before, so she knew what to do this year. She said that she tried to keep herself busy by doing work and going to classes. And just like last year, she went to a Korean Barbecue restaurant with unlimited food to break her fast.

“I don't like sleeping all day, so I try to keep myself really busy,” Fradlin Ryan said. “But then it's really fun, actually, at night when you can break the fast. You get to eat as much as you want.”

Helman, a Lovett College senior, said he went to Chabad House for services that involve prayers of confession and repentance for Yom Kippur this year.

“We finally broke fast with the delicious food Chabad provided us, including bagels and lox (with a lot of toppings), babka, [and] dried fruits,” Helman said.

Balancing college life and faith

Pearl Fernandes, co-president of Rice Catholic Student Association, said that balancing the rigorous demands of Rice academics and extracurriculars with religious holiday celebrations is a challenge. Fernandes said she prioritizes her faith and schedules her time to ensure that she can participate in religious celebrations and services.

“Fr. Ray [Cook, director and chaplain of Rice Catholic Student Center] is extremely accommodating and does his best to schedule events and services to best fit our schedules,” Fernandes said. "I make it a point to communicate with my professors when I have major commitments due to religious holidays that can affect my ability to turn in assignments.” 

Helman said that he received permission to miss the one class he had on Yom Kippur this year to attend afternoon services at the small synagogue in Aishel House. According to Helman, his professors are generally very accommodating about religious holidays.

“Usually what happens is that you email the professor, and they say, ‘Oh, of course, it's completely fine,’” Helman said. “The professors are usually super cool about it. And also we're supposed to warn professors some time before we actually don't go to class. But a lot of people forget and just tell it like the day before, but even so, I've never heard of anyone that had any problem [with] professors because of some religious holiday.”

Shreya Majeti, a practicing Hindu, said she plans and works ahead of time when she knows a religious holiday is coming.  

“Hinduism has a lot of holidays,” Majeti, a Jones College sophomore, said. “Since I know in advance when the holidays are gonna be -- there’s a calendar based on the moon and sun signs -- I can prepare accordingly … I feel like if I were to tell my professors, they’d all be very understanding of it”

Ba said he doesn’t think there is any Buddhism holiday that he missed class for.

“Buddhism is heavily dependent on how much effort and devotion you put in,” Ba said. “It's like Buddhism is really put on the backburner when I'm at Rice. So I don't really have to, I guess, face any of those restrictions where I can't attend class or anything.”

Pandemic impacts

At different stages, the pandemic has affected the way students practice their religions. Leslie Arrazolo, co-president of Rice Catholic Student Association, said that celebrating religious holidays was a bit challenging last year. Some services were delivered online, in-person services had reduced capacities and physical distancing, and faith-building activities were less frequent.

“During the pandemic we had to make much smaller gatherings, social distance, lower the frequency of our events, among other modifications,” Arrazolo, a Brown College senior, said. “But even as we shouted across the room because our masks were too thick and we were too far apart from each other, the opportunity to share our faith journey during a time of isolation made us feel more connected.”

Arrazolo said that last year she observed Advent, a season of waiting and preparation for around three weeks before December 24, by attending masses in person on Sundays. 

“Advent is a time in which we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ on Christmas,” Arrazolo said. “At Rice, I felt comfortable attending services because the students that attended mass followed Rice Covid-19 guidelines.”

Majeti said the many festivals and events at the temple in her hometown were scaled down due to limitations on the number of people in an open setting. Prayers were the only part of Diwali that was held at the temple, according to Majeti.

“Last year, [the temple] didn't do any fireworks, and fireworks are a really big part of Diwali,” Majeti said. “And they also didn't serve any meals at Diwali, and they usually do. You just had to eat at home.”

Helman said when he was home in Brazil last year, the pandemic prevented many social events, so he and his family would not go to the synagogue. Helman said it is great that things are now going back to normal and he can go to Chabad every Friday. 

On the other hand, Fradlin Ryan said the pandemic has not impacted how she observes religious holidays very much.

“Even last year, when I was a freshman in college, Chabad was able to hold in person events for the High Holidays only. [They were] limited [in] capacity, but I was still able to observe [them],” Fradlin Ryan said. “There [are] other holidays that I wish I could have spent with my family during the pandemic, but we just did it on Zoom [which] is totally fine.”

Fernandes said that during the pandemic, she realized that taking the time to celebrate Catholic holidays was necessary to refocus on her faith.

“Though many services were virtual or incorporated social distancing and masks, it was still great to connect with my religious community and share in our joy collectively,” Fernandes said. “Nothing can beat the in-person celebrations, but the pandemic has taught me to cherish each experience and make the most of what we have.”

[10/7/2021 This article has been updated to reflect that Fayiz Faruk is the vice president of the Muslim Students Association.]

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