“My faith is a cultural identity; it’s something that ties me closer to my family, and it’s passed down to me, kind of like an heirloom,” Felix Brener (10) said.
In a world that some find to have become increasingly secularized and filled with pressure to succeed in both school and the workplace, it is often difficult for religion to take center stage in one’s life. However, for some of the school’s students and faculty, religion plays a central role in both their identity and their day-to-day lives.
When Rosy Arora (11) graduated from St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School, an Episcopal private school, and entered Horace Mann in ninth grade, she left behind a routine unique to religious schools: a 45-minute church service led by her teachers every morning.
The services at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s were catered to a youth audience to teach lessons about life in relation to the Bible. Although she doesn’t describe herself as being “overly religious,” Arora recognized that the lack of daily sermons at Horace Mann marked a tangible absence in her school life, she said.
“[Christianity] was ingrained in my education ever since I was three years old, so when I came to Horace Mann, I felt like I was missing something from my routine.”
Arora, who practices both Hinduism and Roman Catholicism, still practices some of these religious habits by going to church every Sunday with her family. However, the Episcopal practices of St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s differ from those of Roman Catholicism.
“[St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s] rules are more progressive; they allow female priests, whereas in the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s usually only white men [who preach],” Arora said.
Sometimes, she and her father will go to a Durga Temple in New Jersey, a service that involves a lot less “sitting around and singing”—forms of worship typical in a Catholic church service—and more listening to chants led by Hindu priests , she said.
Due to the small Hindu population in New York City, there aren’t many Hindu temples in New York City, making it difficult for Arora and her family to practice Hinduism regularly. The two sides of Arora’s faith don’t often come in conflict, she said. In fact, her Hindu relatives from India celebrate Christmas with Arora’s family whenever they visit.
Riva Vig’s (10) family practices Hinduism by participating in Pujas, Hindu prayer rituals, and festivals, in addition to going to temple. Vig abstains from eating meat and eggs during certain holidays. As a part of their faith, Vig and her family also do not eat beef altogether.
Brener, who is an Israeli citizen and practices Conservative Judaism, follows the traditional Jewish diet by trying to keep Kosher, refraining from pork and shellfish, and never eating meat and dairy together. He considers himself to be the most religious out of his friends, as not many of his other friends keep Kosher or have Shabbat dinner every Friday, which Brener’s family tries to do, he said.
Gabby Fischberg (11) is agnostic, meaning that she claims neither faith nor disbelief in a higher power. She was also raised in the Catholic faith, but unlike Arora, Fischberg stopped practicing Catholicism when she was around 12 years old. Fischberg’s church took a traditional approach to analyzing the Bible, causing some sermons to veer on the conservative side. This subsequently led to conflicts between her sexuality and her Sunday school teachings, Fischberg said.
“Lots of Catholics especially are kind of bigoted when it comes to homosexuality,” Fischberg said. “It’s not what the Bible says, and it’s not what God is about, but a lot of the time, the Bible can be warped and misinterpreted to fit the agenda of others.”
Fischberg’s family celebrates Christmas and Easter, and Fischberg herself is both baptized and confirmed. Fischberg, who recently came out as gay to her mother, said her mother is supportive of her sexuality. Growing up, however, Fischberg felt bitter towards the idea of giving up her free time every week to go to church, which she did for about five years, she said.
Although Fischberg’s father is Jewish, she doesn’t feel remotely connected to Judaism, as her family only really celebrates Hanukkah and occasionally attends Seder dinners, she said. Fischberg wished she could’ve had different options to explore her religious beliefs as a child, since she does believe in “something bigger—just maybe not organized religion,” Fischberg said.
On the other hand, although Sarah Acocelli’s (12) father is Catholic, she and her mother are Jewish. Acocelli’s family celebrates Passover, Hanukkah, and other Jewish holidays, and Acocelli doesn’t participate in any Christian celebrations, she said. “Obviously it’s my [father’s side of the] family and I see them every year, but in terms of actual religious beliefs, I don’t feel Christian.”
Because of the conservative, “bigoted” nature of Fischberg’s church, Fischberg felt as though her identity as a member of the LGBT+ community was being attacked. “I had a [religious] experience that wasn’t completely welcoming, and I think that if I was Protestant or part of a different church, I would have been more involved and less spiteful about being Catholic,” Fischberg said.
Similarly, math teacher Charles Garcia was born and raised Catholic, but only attended church on Christmas and Easter as he grew older, he said. Garcia is no longer Catholic primarily because of the way Christian institutions have “politicized” religion: by “picking and choosing things in the Bible to support some people and persecute others,” he said.
At his former school, Brener faced some backlash for his beliefs about the Israeli government in light of the ongoing Israeli-Palisteinian conflict.
“Obviously, I don’t have any issue if someone just has a different beliefs, I think it’s great to have dialogue,” Brener said. “But I’ve also had people instantly freeze up when I tell them that I’m Israeli and even sometimes when I tell people I’m Jewish; it comes with a bunch of assumptions about my political views both in terms of national defense and social [issues].”
In 1992, Garcia confronted Fred Phelps, the former pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, about the homophobic agenda the church supports, which includes picketing LGBT+ pride gatherings and funerals mournring the passing of gay individuals. Phelps and his fellow church members were protesting at Disney World in Orlando, Florida during Disney’s annual Gay Days in June, at which Phelps led an anti-gay demonstration.
Even as a teenager, Garica was no stranger to rampant homophobia. His high school physics teacher, who was the head of a Bible study group, was openly homophobic to students like Garica who were out. “He said for our parents to make sure that they voted against the gay rights ordinance or they would put a f** in [the teacher’s] place tomorrow,” Garcia said.
However, Garcia’s experience in dealing with his high school physics teacher led him to want to become a teacher and be open about his sexuality, he said. “I want kids to see that is it okay, and there is nothing wrong with it, and you can be in this community and be accepted.”
Despite her tumultuous relationship with the church when she was a child, Fischberg has considered the possibility of reentering the Christian church later in life, she said. “I’m sure if I went through Sunday school right now—when I’m more sure of my identity and [have] worked through my own problems—I would be less resentful.”
Although Garica’s mother and extended family still practice Catholicism, Garcia does not intend to rejoin the church anytime soon, in part due to his past experiences with Phelps and his high school physics teacher, he said. “[These incidents] happened because of an organized religious group, not because of the belief system that they had.”
But for Brener, following the Jewish faith and being an Israeli citizen is “comforting,’ as he knows he has a community to fall back on, especially at the school. “Being at Horace Mann [is] interesting because it’s a school that has such a high percentage of Jewish people that I never really have to worry about being the ‘other’ for being Jewish,” Brener said.