A bonfire of beliefs
Jewish Aggies angered at school's
by Jocelyn Malka
Texas A & M University is a school where traditions run deep and wide. The bonfire tragedy of 1999 and the backlash over the event's cancellation is but one example of the dedication students and alumni have to their school.
But there is trouble brewing in Aggieland.
This year's Muster ceremony, an annual memorial honoring departed Aggies, contained numerous references to Jesus in a prayer that was promised beforehand by school officials to be non-denominational. The yearly Ring Dance, which has been compared in significance to the senior prom, was scheduled on the first day of Passover, despite a calendar of Jewish holidays being sent to the planning committee.
Members of the A & M Hillel recently brought their complaints to Malon Southerland, vice president of student affairs. According to a letter written to Hillel advisor Rabbi Peter Tarlow, Southerland was unresponsive to the students' concerns.
"He seemed more interested in defending the university than fixing the problems," the letter stated. "While Dr. Southerland expressed minimal concern, he offered no initiative on his part to fix the situation. Basically, he turned this issue into a problem for us to fix."
Leanne Hall, Hillel board member, was one of the students who met with Southerland. "For the most part," Hall said, "he seemed kind of apathetic. I was a little disappointed, but at the same time I guess it doesn't surprise me."
Hall said that last year's Muster ceremony, which is partially funded by the university, contained religious references as well. "Last year we didn't go to the administration because we were told it would be taken care of."
The matter was not corrected, as was evident by this year's invocation, she added.
Tarlow called last year's ceremony a "Christian pep-rally," with numerous references to Jesus and Christianity, despite the fact that two Jews were among the departed Aggies honored. Tarlow said, "This year, a non-denominational prayer was picked. But the invocation was again very Jesus."
Kyle Easely, the corps chaplain who delivered the prayer, said he considers himself a devout Christian. "They approved a prayer without consulting me," Easely said when asked about the references to Jesus in the prayer he delivered. "I was pretty offended that they would ask me to do a prayer and then ask me to read from a script."
"I know that a lot of people aren't happy about the prayer I said," said Easely, "But my first calling other than chaplain is as a Christian."
Easely said that whenever he gets the chance to praise Jesus, he does so.
Guy Efune, Hillel member, called it "a blatant breaking of the rules."
Meredith Persky said she is very angry about Easely's decision to insert Christian references into the prayer and is disappointed with the university's approach to the situation. Persky, Hillel board member, said. "[The chaplains] end the prayers in Jesus' name. It might be second nature to them, but to me it's insulting."
While there is one Jewish chaplain, the majority are Christian, Persky said. "I have been involved in everything that this university has to offer, but now I don't want anything to do with them," she said.
Ring Dance, the year-end celebration seniors attend, was also discussed at the meeting with Southerland. Hillel board member Hall said, " It is the culmination of four years of college and I was very disappointed that I didn't get to go."
Hillel member Efune said, "We give [the planning committee] a five-year planner so that they know all the Jewish holidays. We faxed it to them four times this year."
Administrative negligence seems to be the culprit, according to Efune and Tarlow. "They just don't bother to look," said Tarlow.
Tarlow thinks a resolution is in the hands of the administration. "I'd like the school to take charge," Tarlow said. Tarlow has encouraged the Hillel students to pursue the issue, and believes they will see it to its successful conclusion.
These incidents seem to fly in the face of A & M's Vision 2020 project which aims to have a more diverse campus. "There is a need for diversity," said Tarlow.
When Vision 2020 was brought up in the meeting with Southerland, Hall said, "He changed the subject."
According to Wynn Rosser, Muster committee advisor, the meeting with Southerland was beneficial. Rosser, who did not attend the meeting, said Southerland described it as "positive, open and frank,"
"We wouldn't purposefully exclude anyone," Rosser said in regards to the Muster ceremony's invocation.
A traditional and non-denominational Muster prayer from the 1950s was used for this year's event following the controversy the year before, Rosser said. This prayer was handed over to Campus Ministries where minor changes were made, and then to corps chaplain Easley, said Rosser.
"We agree that the prayer [that Easley delivered] was offensive," Rosser said. He met with Easley following the incident and said, "[Easely] understands the issues."
To prevent this from happening in the future, Rosser said a Muster committee member will read the invocation from now on.
A university spokesperson said that Southerland was unable to comment on the controversy because of other pressing duties.
Hall said she chose to attend A & M because of its culture. "But now, the things that pulled me in - all the tradition - are what I'm having issues with now. I don't know if I would highly recommend it to a Jewish student."
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, May 10, 2001
and was last modified on: Thu, Jun 7, 2001