Fall 2019 Religion Department Newsletter

Columbian College Department of Religion. A group of four students talking

Message from the Chair
Department Spotlights
Department Kudos
Class Notes
Donor Recognition

Message from the Chair

photo of Professor Robert Eisen





Happy Fall, Religion Alumni! 

The field of religion continues to be one of the most important subjects one can study in our day and age, and the Religion Department at GW continues to provide students with a superb education about this subject. On the undergraduate level, our classes have remained quite popular with students at GW. We have also seen an increase in the number of religion majors and minors in recent years. The Peace Studies Program, which we oversee, has been thriving under the directorship of Professor Irene Oh. On the graduate level, our MA program in Islamic studies is marking its five-year anniversary, and it too is going strong under the leadership of Professor Mohammad Faghfoory. We have also just added a new track on Shi’ite Islam to this program, a course of study not available in most graduate programs in Islamic Studies in the United States. The annual Berz and Ziffren Lectures in the past year were of very high quality, with the first devoted to subject of religious views on life on other planets, and the second dedicated to examining Jewish and Christian views on the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor.

We would love to hear from you. If you have studied in our program, drop us a line about what you have been up to. We professors greatly enjoy getting news about our former students. We would also love to hear from others of you who are supporters of our department. And of course, your contributions are always welcome. We are a small department that does a great deal for our students and for GW as a whole, and we can do our job better with help from folks like you.


Robert Eisen
Department Chair



Department Spotlights

Islamic Studies Introduces Shi'ism Track


Students from the Islamic Studies program. From left, Kelly El-Yacoubi, Ali Mohamed, Halim Khoiri and Yi Lei.



Our MA program in Islamic studies has been highly successful in its first five years, exceeding enrollment expectations and attracting students from around the world. We hope to bring the program to even greater heights with the addition of a track that concentrates on Shi’ite Islam beginning in the current academic year. The impetus for establishing the new track came from a dialogue between Professor Rob Eisen (chair of the Religion Department), Professor Mohammad Faghfoory (director of the MA program in Islamic studies) and representatives of I.M.A.M. (Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya), an organization in the Washington area that serves the needs of Shi’ite communities throughout North America.

The representatives of I.M.A.M. approached Professors Eisen and Faghfoory with the hope that the Religion Department’s MA program in Islamic studies could help prepare students to serve the Shi’ite community in one capacity or another. After much discussion, the Religion Department decided to establish the Shi’ism track to cater to students interested in focusing on this form of Islam. Students in the regular track in Islamic studies will also be able to take courses in the Shi’ism track. I.M.A.M. has also agreed to provide a number of full scholarships to students who pursue the Shi’ism track.

We are most excited about these developments. Our program is one of only a small number of graduate programs in Islamic studies in the United States that teaches about both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. Most are focused exclusively on the larger Sunni branch of Islam. The creation of the new track formalizes our commitment to provide a well-rounded education in Islam to our graduate students, one that covers Islam in all its forms. We are also grateful to the leadership of I.M.A.M for having inspired the idea of a Shi’ism track and for providing funding for students interested in taking it. We are looking forward to having an ongoing relationship with them in the coming years.

Berz Lecture: Ken Knoespel on Religious Tradition and the Future of Life in the Cosmos



Ken Knoespel, McEver Professor Emeritus of Engineering and the Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology, delivered the annual Berz Lectures in February. In it, he explored the relationship between religion and science as it pertains to space exploration and the search for life on other planets. Nowadays, we tend to make a sharp distinction between religious truths that are mythological in nature and scientific truths that are empirically-based. Knoespel argued that the two types of truth are not as distinct as one might think, and he illustrated his point by providing examples of how the current search for life on other planets by scientists can be illuminated by the mythological ideas one finds in this history of various religious traditions. Much thanks to Professor Derek Malone-France, who helped arranged this talk. Malone-France himself has become a pioneer in investigating the philosophical and religious implications of life in the cosmos, and has begun teaching courses on this issue.



Ken Knoespel delivers the annual Berz Lecture

Abbie Ziffren Memorial Lecture: Shai Held on Love Your Neighbor: Jews, Christians and the Meaning of a Very Elusive Commandment



Shai Held giving the Ziffren Lecture



Shai Held is a popular figure among young, progressive Jews in America. He is an ordained rabbi and holds a doctorate in religion from Harvard University. Now he serves as president, dean and chair of Jewish Thought at Hadar, an innovative Jewish institution based in New York that is devoted to fostering a socially progressive Judaism. Delivering the Abbie Ziffren Memorial Lecture, Held looked at how Jews and Christians, from ancient to modern times, have understood the famous “love commandment” in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Held showed that this seemingly simple imperative has inspired a long and complex history of interpretation. For instance, the commandment has been understood by some interpreters in the two religions as being about emotion, while for others it is about action; for a third group, it is about  both. There is also the question of who the “neighbor” is that one is supposed to love. Does it include only one’s co-religionists, or all human beings? Held explored these questions and more. Much thanks to Professor Eyal Aviv for recommending Held as a speaker for this event. Aviv has known Held since they were graduate students together at Harvard.

Anyu Silverman, Will Klein Win Religion Major Prize



Anyu Silverman and Will Klein were the winners of the Harry Yeide Prize Winners for Excellence in the Religion Major, which recognizes the top graduating religion major each year. Both excelled in their religion courses. They also produced highly interesting senior theses. Anyu’s thesis was titled, “‘My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?’ A Comparative Study on Theological Protest in the Jewish and Christian Traditions.” Will’s thesis was titled, “Empowering Women Through The Three R’s: Reading, Writing, and Religion among Indonesian Islamic Women’s Groups.”



 From left, Victoria Lewis, Professor Xiaofei Kang, Anyu Silverman, Will Klein and Drew Keavany.



Department Kudos

  • Jon Wood published a book titled, Reforming Priesthood in Reformation Zurich: Heinrich Bullinger’s End-Time Agenda (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018).

  • Mohammad Faghfoory published a book titled, Ethics of War and Peace in Islam: A Shi‘a View (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2019).

  • Several books by Seyyed Hossein Nasr were published in Arabic in Cairo and in Bengali in Dacca.

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Class Notes

  • Julie DeMareo, BA ’10, graduated in May with a Master of Divinity from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. She now works as a Chaplain serving the students, faculty and staff at Loyola University Chicago's Health Sciences Campus.
  • Blair Moreland, BA ’99, is currently living outside of Detroit with her two children and runs a freelance PR business, with clients primarily in the security technology and advertising fields.
  • Rachel Talbert, BA ’97, is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, titled “Civic Identity of Urban Indigenous Students” at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development in Washington, D.C.
  • Trey O’Callaghan, BA ’14 is a corporate attorney at King & Spalding in Atlanta, Ga. In 2018, he won a Gaelic Football North American national championship.
  • Picascia Rosanna, BA ’07 completed her PhD in the philosophy of religion at Harvard University this past spring. She is currently pursuing new opportunities in higher education and nonprofit organizations while trying to keep up with her spirited toddler son.
  • Carolyn Hetzer Zuttel, BA ’78, completed courses in clinical pastoral education at Rex and Duke University Hospitals in North Carolina and was endorsed as a hospital chaplain in 2013.

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Donor Recognition

The Religion Department would like to gratefully acknowledge the following generous donors who made a gift to the department from July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019.

+ Faculty/Staff | # Parent | ~ Student | * Friend


Toby Bordelon, BA ’99, MS ’13

William Donovan, ’07

Paul Duff, Ph.D., +

David Kehoe, BA ’11

Sarah Kehoe, BA ’11

Carma Khatib, BA ’16

Jai Mirchandani, BBA ’12

Trey O’Callaghan, BA ’14

Rev. Janet Parachin, BA ’84

Victor Rodriguez, MS ’79

Sarah Silverman, BA ’17

Heather Young, BA ’94, MA ’96

Support the Religion Department


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