Students create religious unions for first time, follow other MCPS schools


Graphic by Alex Silber.

By Zara Ali

After spending hours pacing through the cafeteria on Clubs Night looking for a Muslim-oriented club to join, freshman Iman Ilias went home unsuccessful in her search and  frustrated. Instead of joining a club, she decided to create her own: the Muslim Student Association.

For the first time at Whitman, students have created two clubs based on religion: the MSA and the Jewish Student Union. Ilias and junior Azan Ali collaborated to start the Whitman MSA chapter, and they have organized volunteer work at local mosques and fundraisers for refugees. Currently, the MSA has around 10 members. Some nearby schools, including Churchill and Richard Montgomery, already had MSA chapters, Ilias said.

“When I started high school, I was talking to my friends in other public schools and all of their schools had MSAs,” Ilias said. “I was kind of disappointed that even though I do see a lot of Muslims here at our school, Whitman doesn’t have a MSA.”

Sophomore Anna Berger started the JSU this year in hopes of finding a forum to connect with others students over their Jewish identity. The club is also relatively small at the moment: each meeting welcomes 12 members although around 30 to 40 people have signed up, senior Samantha Goldberg said.

“I did some research, and it turns out that every other high school in Montgomery County has a Jewish Union,” Berger said. “When I went to find Whitman’s, it wasn’t there so I figured I could do it.”

Meetings consist of speakers on the impact of volunteer work and the Jewish community. For example, at a recent meeting they had a speaker from the organization Leveling the Playing Field, which allows low-income children to play more sports, who previously attended the Jewish Day School in Rockville. He discussed Judaism’s core value of tikkun olam, or giving back to the community

The JSU has been an important support network for many students following the recent tragedy in Pittsburgh, Goldberg said. Although other Jewish organizations exist out of school, such as the Jewish teen fraternities and sororities in BBYO (a Jewish youth group), the JSU provides a unique forum for the community to bond.

“Students join just to bond in times like now where there is a lot of turmoil within the Jewish community in America,” Goldberg said.

For the MSA, there was never a huge interest to create a club, partly out of fear that there would not be enough support among students. But with prevalent accounts of discrimination against Muslims popping up more often throughout the U.S., more people want to know more about their origins and religions, Ali said.

Along with doing volunteer work, both clubs aim to dispel stereotypes about the religions through dialogue between club members and to strengthen religious identity in a safe space.

“One of our focuses is to start discussions about what it’s like to be Muslim,” Ali said.

“We are trying to have an impact [with] community service at the Muslim homeless shelter and the Islamic Community Center of Potomac.”

While the Whitman clubs remain more focused on the cultural aspect of each religion, their counterparts at other schools encourage students to study religious texts and rules. At RM, the MSA chapter holds prayer sessions in school every Friday for those who want to participate.

“We have so many identities as high school students,” Ilias said. “It’s important to remember with everything going on that religion is one of our identities.”