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NYU Prague Co-hosts a Conference about the Roma Genocide

NYU Prague recently co-hosted a conference that brought together scholars and survivors of the Roma genocide.  As a lead-up to the conference, NYU Prague students met with two of the participating scholars – Tara Zahra (University of Chicago) and Jan Grill (Universidad del Valle, Cali) – who talked about the challenges of doing research about a minority group whose history has been mainly documented by the majority population.  Moderated by NYU Prague professor Katerina Capkova – also a co-organizer of the conference – the students learned about the discrimination and tragedies this minority has suffered throughout so many regimes: the Hapsburg Empire, the Nazis, the Communists …. .  In the following days, students could attend the conference and hear stories first-hand from genocide survivors and their family members.    Below is an article about the conference written by NYU Prague Resident Adviser Clare Profous who is also an intern at Romea, www.romea.cz – a website dedicated to publishing articles that promote human rights by giving a voice to the Roma minority.  You can find the original article here.
Roma and Sinti Genocide Survivors, Descendants and Scholars Unite in Prague
By Clare Profous. September 20 – 21, 2017
In what way have memories of the Roma genocide affected survivors and their descendants? How have these experiences continued to influence Roma and their treatment within Europe since 1945? These were some of the questions discussed this past week at the two-day conference Tracing the Legacies of the Roma Genocide: Families as Transmitters of Experience and Memory. The conference brought together two international academic initiatives, the research network “Legacies of the Roma Genocide in Europe since 1945”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the UK and the Prague Forum for Romani Histories.
Roma throughout Europe were subject to violence and persecution by Nazi Germany and its allies in the 12 years leading up to 1945. It is estimated that at least 200,000 Roma were murdered, although some argue that the number may have been much higher.  Among other forms of persecution, Roma and Sinti were forced to personally experience or witness friends and relatives become victims of mass killings, were forced into gas chambers and killed there, were sent on death marches or were subjected to other forms of violence during and after the war – including sexual violence and mass sterilization.
Helena Sadílková, Ph.D, the Head of the Seminar of Romani Studies at Charles University and one of the main organizers of the event, explained what this new endeavor is about: “The Prague Forum for Romani Histories was established not only to foster a debate among scholars from different fields that focus on the history of the Roma and thus to support historical scholarship in Romani studies, but also to help to integrate such research into the wider field of European history – not as a separate/parallel minority history, but as an integral part of European history and an important lens that can deepen our understanding of the historical processes that have shaped the history of European societies”.
Speakers were invited from across the globe to reach this goal of fostering transnational discourse, including Professor Tara Zahra of Chicago University and Ari Joskowicz, an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University.  Scholars described their research in different regions of Europe including former Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, France, Belarus and Lithuania. Their work focused on the effects and coping mechanisms related to trauma, the transmission of memory within families as well as private and public forms of commemoration, and institutional practices regarding the treatment of Roma in post-war Europe.
The purpose of the conference was twofold. Not only did it allow scholars to share ideas, but it also promoted close collaboration and the co-production of knowledge between academics and members of diverse Romani communities. Researchers were joined by Roma and Sinti survivors and their descendants, who spoke of their experiences as victims of persecution and how that past continues to fuel present-day discrimination. They also spoke of the challenges they face as they work towards coming to terms with the tragedies affecting them and their families. This discussion marked the opening of the exhibition by Eve Rosenhaft and Jana Müller titled: “…don’t forget the photos, it’s very important…” The Nationalist Socialist Persecution of Central German Sinti and Roma at the Václav Havel Library in Prague.
“The research of the history of the Roma suffers from fragmentation and remains … on the margins of the field of history as an academic discipline in general. We, however, believe that the research in the history of Roma has a
great potential in contributing to the existing historic and historiographic debates on the processes and developments in Europe since the 19th century in terms of, i.e., (dis)continuities of certain social and institutional practices as well as the questions of periodization, production of knowledge, or methodological as well as ethical concerns, etc.” says Sadílková.
For the program and complete list of speakers, organizers, and sponsors go to: http://www.romanihistories.usd.cas.cz/conferences/?y=2017
Organizers:

NYU Prague’s New Course – History in the Headlines

What if the titles of a course’s lectures were based on actual headlines?   This semester, the Prague site has done just that in our newly-launched course “History in the Headlines” and some examples of the lecture titles include:
Modern Life in an Old City: Is Prague Becoming a Disneyland? 
Donald Trump and  his  Czech Mini-me 
How will Brexit Change Central Europe?
The course meets once a week and is taught by 14 members of our faculty, each an expert on the topic they present.  Lecturers include the former Czech minister of foreign affairs,  leaders  of the Vevet Revolution and the dissident movement against Communism, an architect at Prague Castle, a film historian and a jazz musician.   Seminars are overseen by the NYU Prague Director Jiri Pehe and Assistant Director of Academics Vanda Thorne.
The original, highly-successful precursor of the class was developed in New York by Timothy Naftali in the Department of History (CAS).  In New York, the goal of the course was “to enable students to curate knowledgeably the flood of news spewing from their media 24/7.”
Eliot Bernstein from the Russian and Slavic Studies Department at CAS came up with the idea that the New York syllabus could be adapted by Prague.   According to Vanda Thorne, Assistant Director of NYU Prague, “We are following the NYU model, but additioanlly we are aware that our students have much less of a context to draw upon when they read articles about Czech or European news.  They didn’t grow up here, they might not know the history of the region.  We try to give them the historical and cultural context so they will can better understand whether the media is reflecting and interpreting things accurately.”
Students read and discuss academic articles in addition to the articles that the headlines come from.  Does the article reflect reality?  How do media report on hot topics – and how could they affect the opinions of the reader?
The 2-credit class is open to students of all majors and is designed to increase NYU’s affordibility as well as help students have a deeper understanding of the country and region in which they are studying.   Students who haven’t signed up for the class are welcome to audit.
This is a hot topic in the era of fake news.  Other NYU global sites are considering their own versions of this project, which would create space for interesting inter-cultural analyses and discussions – not to mention more interesting headlines.

NYU Prague Hosts Andrew Schapiro, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic 2014-2017

It all started with a box of letters.

When Andrew Schapiro’s family cleared out his grandmother‘s attic after she died in 1990, they came upon the correspondence between his grandparents and relatives left behind in Prague during WWII. The letters tell the story of the Nazi occupation, written by Czech Jews confronted by increasing racism and ever-changing rules as they desperately tried to escape.

“The letters must have been too painful for my grandmother,” Andrew Schapiro told his audience when he came to NYU Prague to share stories and photos. His family published the correspondence in 1992 in a book entitled Letters from Prague 1939-1941. When Mr. Schapiro became the US Ambassador to Prague in 2014, interest in a Czech edition emerged. The letters were recently published in Czech and were edited by NYU Prague professor Katerina Capkova.

The correspondence begins in 1939, when Mr. Schapiro’s grandparents got three exit visas to the USA – for a family of five.  This left them with a heart-wrenching decision: whom to leave behind?  Two of their three children (including Andrew’s mother, aged 5) stayed in Prague in the care of their grandmother (Paula) and their Uncle Erwin. The first half of the book is about the complications in getting the girls visas so they could join their family in St. Louis. Finally, shortly after Germany Poland and the war began, the girls left for the USA.

“That would have been the happy end,” said Mr. Schapiro. “if it weren’t for the family left behind.” The second half of the book is an increasingly desperate first-hand account of  assimilated Czech Jews trapped. “Uncle Erwin was a successful doctor – one of the leading gastronetrologists in Europe.  It makes me sad that people who might have been able to help didn’t stick their necks out.” The last letter in the book is from 1942 – a postcard sent by his great-grandmother to her sister:

I must tell you that on Monday I [depart – crossed out] am boarding [the train] .  God bless us all, farewell.  Your Paula.  

Neither Paula nor Uncle Erwin survived.

As Ambassador in Prague, Andrew Schapiro lived only a few blocks away from where his mother had lived as a child, and when he moved to Prague, suddenly so many of the references in the letters came to life. His office in the Embassy also evoked memories. It was there that visas for his mother and aunt had been issued. But it was also there that Uncle Erwin’s request for a visa was delayed. One of the very few documents to survive the war was a letter from the US Embassy from 1939 saying it would take several years for them to process his request for a visa. “I had mixed feelings as the US Ambassador. I represented a country that had saved our lives but had also shut out so many people.”

Mr. Schapiro remarked on some of the parallels that refugees trying to escape war are confronting today. He reminded students of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 

This post comes to us from Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague.

 

 

 

NYU Prague’s Latest PragueCast Explores Youth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The latest edition of PragueCast, a podcast with stories of Prague told through the eyes of NYU Prague students coordinated by BBC correspondent Rob Cameron. With Cameron’s guidance, the students produce 20-minute editions, each with a different theme chosen by students, and distribute it to a wide audience. Students write, record, produce, edit, and market the episodes – all as a non-credit internship. Read more about the origins of the program in an earlier Global Dimensions conversation with Cameron and participating students here. The program has now been running for three years. Themes covered have included topics as divers as dreams. refuge, searching, thirst, and the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The latest edition is focused on Youth.

Youth – wasted on the young, as George Bernard Shaw famously said? Or is that unkind? What are the dreams and aspirations of Czech kids today? Why do so many Czech women (and men) pursue the elusive goal of youthful looks? And what do the elderly think of the young people of today? Tune in to find out! Listen here.

Patrick Virgie speaks to the not-so-young about the youth of today.

So, what are the dreams and aspirations of Czech kids today? According to Patrick Virgie, an NYU Prague student and PragueCast member who spent time with elderly Czechs to find out what they think of young people today, “No matter the cultural, political or age difference, at the end of the day, … we all just want to come together, tell a good story, and share a good laugh.”

Working with Cameron, the PragueCast team visited a local senior citizen’s home, a school, a plastic surgeon and interviewed people on their street about their opinions on the theme. Every semester, the PragueCast releases 2-3 episodes that explore Czech politics, society, and culture.

PragueCasters Onyeka Osih and Aine Marie Policastro hit the streets to ask Czech women for their beauty tips – how do they stay young, and for whom?

“Working with Rob is amazing, and doing the podcast has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone,” reported one member of the team this semester.  This is a fantastic opportunity for aspiring journalists, writers, or students who want to learn more about the Czech Republic in an active way.

You can download the Youth podcast here or find all of the episodes on thePragueCast site. Happy listening!

 

Former Czech Ambassadors Discuss Trump Presidency at NYU Prague

Two former Czech Ambassadors to the USA- Alexandr Vondra and Michael Zantovsky – recently spoke at NYU Prague about their views on the Trump Presidency.  They were joined by Tomas Klvana, NYU Prague professor and author of the recently published book FenomenTrump (The Trump Phenomenon).

The ambassadors focused primarily on how the new administration could affect European relations – potentially strengthening European countries’ commitment to NATO.  Tomas Klvana, who did his doctorate in the USA, spoke  from a more sociological perspective, siting his theories on why Trump was elected.  He spoke about identity politics, the rapid changes in technology, and how the ability for everyone to instantly publish their views online is affecting public opinion.
The audience – made up of students, professors and members of the public – asked about the panelists’ opinions on the personality of Trump and his affect on society.  It ended with a passionate discussion demonstrating the different perceptions of the definition of an “ordinary American” and how Trump’s term in office could continue to shape those perceptions.
This article is by Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague.

NYU Prague Students meet with Prominent Tibetan Refugee

The students with Nyima Lhamo.

In late February, NYU Prague students had the unique opportunity to meet Nyima Lhamo, the 26-year old niece of a Tibetan lama who died in a Chinese prison in 2015. Ms. Lhamo, who fled Tibet in 2016,  was in Prague on an advocacy visit to tell the story of her uncle’s death.

Her uncle was Trulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan activist and community leader who promoted Tibetan culture and was often critical of Chinese policies. In 2002, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of terrorism and inciting separatism in the Sichuan Province (charges which he and his supporters denied)  He died in 2015 at age 65, thirteen years into his prison sentence.  Chinese media sited the cause of death as a heart attack, but no death certificate has been issued and there are many questions surrounding his death.
Ms. Lhamo escaped to India in July 2016, a year after her uncle’s death, leaving her 6-year old daughter behind.  She fled China so she could appeal to the international community to pressure China to investigate Rinpoche’s conviction and death. Before escaping, she and her mother were detained by the Chinese authorities for 18 days in Chengdu on charges for “leaking state secrets to the outside world.”
The event was organized in collaboration with the Forum 2000 Foundation, founded by the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the human rights organization People in Need.

By Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague

Former NYU Prague Music Student Ericsson Hatfield Continues to Create with Petra Matejova, Professor of Piano and Expert on Early Music

When Ericsson Hatfield came to NYU Prague in 2015 as a sophomore to study music, he didn’t expect that one year later, he would return to Prague to have his compositions professionally performed and recorded by his former professor.

But that is exactly where his studies in the NYU Prague music program led him.

While in Prague Ericsson (Steindhardt, 2018), a student of violin and composition, studied piano with Dr. Petra Matejova, an award-winning Czech pianist specializing in early music and fortepiano playing.  When Ericsson presented one of his compositions to her during a class, she offered to play it at the music students’ recital. 

In the USA this would never happen – professors are much more separated from their students, and you have to pay a lot of money to have a professional play a new piece,” Ericsson explained.

Their collaboration did not end with the recital and Ericsson’s return to the US. They stayed in touch by email, with Ericsson writing new pieces inspired by Petra’s specialization in early music and Petra offering technical advice.  “Ericsson specializes in a style of music – Baroque – that is rare for a 20 year old.  I have met very few people who could write fugues in this form – and he  does it very well,” she said.  

When NYU’s Tonemeisters started planning a trip to Prague for the summer of 2016 during which they would make sound recordings in different spaces in the city, Petra suggested that they use Ericsson’s compositions – resulting in the first professional recordings of Ericsson’s pieces.

“I prefer to perform brand new pieces rather than pieces that millions of people play,” explained Petra Matejova.   “So when the Tonemeisters contacted me, I thought why not record something with more of a connection to NYU?”  

When the Tonemeister’s recordings were successful, Petra and Ericsson decided they wanted to record more – enough for a first album. Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, Ericsson could cover the costs associated with recording his new pieces in Prague, including his airfare and the studio. This past January, Petra and Ericsson rehearsed new pieces.

Their work is  a true collaboration between two artists.  “I believe music should be a communal experience between the performer and the composer – I wrote pieces so Petra could improvise and show off her skills,” explained Ericcson. “I admire greatly the sophistication of Petra’s playing and her approach to my pieces. She puts in quite a bit of time, and quite a bit of thought. She is brilliant in her interpretations and her technical executions.”

Petra also appreciates their musical partnership. “I have never had so much interaction with a composer – that is the advantage of working with talented students – perhaps I dare to have more open discussions with them.  It is a very organic process, very creative.”

When finished, the album will be posted on iTunes and submitted for consideration on streaming services. Ericsson, who is from Palm Beach, Florida has also been discussing the possibilities of holding a public concert at the local arts center to celebrate the release of the album. He hopes that if the event occurs, they could also raise enough funds to invite Petra to perform at the event. 

How did studying in Prague influence Ericsson? “Studying [in Prague] was much more calm than in NYC. I could focus on my composition, and I had time to practice, to experiment. Here friendships with teachers are genuine.  I miss my teachers the same way I miss my friends.”

“Also in Prague, audiences [at classical concerts] are more engaged – you have everyone, all incomes, all ages.  The first time I came to Prague I went to a student concert in a church. It was standing room only. In New York you have to work to get two benches full.”

Ericcson’s plans for the future?  He hopes to continue to study composition at graduate school at Juilliard or Yale. “Baroque music is experiencing a resurgence. Julliard started an early music department.  American composers are going back to Renaissance/Baroque music.”  

You can hear several of Ericsson’s pieces here: https://soundcloud.com/petramatejova

This piece was written by Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague.

How January Term is Redefining Education

This is a post from NYU Abu Dhabi. Although January Term originated with NYU Abu Dhabi, now other students in NYU’s global network, notably those from NYU Shanghai, have the opportunity to experience a January Term.

Education at NYU Abu Dhabi is not just about learning facts from textbooks and passing multiple choice exams. It’s an immersive experience for NYUAD students, who, each January Term choose hands-on classes in cities from Al Ain to Buenos Aires that challenge their perceptions of the past and enrich their visions of the future.

There are dozens of courses offered in J-Term that get students out of the classroom to learn about the world as it was before, and experience the world as it really is today, like Jazz or the Financial Crisis taught in New York City, Emirati Arabic in Al Ain, Museum History in Berlin, and these seven examples that span the globe. Note: course descriptions have been edited.

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Oasis Coast and Mountain

Faculty: Steven C. Caton and Donald M. Scott
Course location: UAE and Oman

A course that challenges students’ perceptions of Arabian landscapes as being mainly desert by showing them three distinct habitat zones: desert oasis, maritime ports, and mountain farms all within 250 kilometers of each other across the UAE and Oman.

Students learn through observational site visits, direct encounters and interactions with local peoples and places through walking tours, interviews, photography and sketching.

Imagining the Renaissance City

Faculty: Jane Tylus
Course location: NYU Florence

Northern and central Italy’s bustling towns inspired many of today’s modern cities and also pioneered recognizably modern artistic, cultural, and engineering practices. Florence was a powerhouse of culture and industry and Siena the ‘Wall Street of Europe’ with the skyline to match.

Students spend three weeks getting to know these towns intimately. Explore downtown Florence, Siena, and the Tuscan countryside. Walk from the town of Fiesole (with its Etruscan ruins and Roman theater), to Monte Ceceri (from whose summit a student of Leonardo da Vinci’s tried to fly; good start, sad ending). Visit seats of government and Renaissance orphanages, climb towers for bird’s-eye views, prowl a crypt recently excavated under Siena’s cathedral, visit churches on hills overlooking Florence and the cells of monks, and walk the trail of the stonecutters to see where Michelangelo found his stone.

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Coastal Urbanization

Faculty: John Burt
Course location: Sydney

Over 80 percent of the Australian population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast and virtually all major Australian cities occur on coastlines. As a result, Australia’s coastal environments have been substantially modified to suit human needs.

Using Sydney’s terrestrial, marine, and built environments as a natural laboratory for field research, students collect environmental data throughout the city and use geographic information systems (GIS) to examine the spatial patterns of human impacts to Sydney’s environment and compare their results with patterns observed in other coastal cities.

Prague

Faculty: Professor Michael Beckerman
Course location: Prague

Prague should have been destroyed during the Second World War, like other major cities in Europe, but somehow it wasn’t. Its remarkable survival allows us to explore Central European history and culture in the context of a completely preserved inner urban core dating back to the Middle Ages.

Class time includes walking tours around Prague, trips to museums, castles, theaters, classical concerts including Mozart’s Magic Flute and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, and several excursions outside the city to the Eastern Province of Moravia, birthplace of Mahler and Freud, and to the UNESCO Heritage site of Cesky Krumlov.

Democracy and its Critics

Faculty: Philip Mitsis
Course location: Abu Dhabi / Athens

An examination of one of history’s most radical and influential democracies, ancient Athens.

Students assume historical roles in key decision-making institutions and debate questions about democratic procedures, the extension of voting rights, religion and free speech, foreign policy, etc., often in the very locations where these ancient debates occurred.

The Idea of the Portrait

Faculty: Shamoon Zamir
Course location: London

The course draws upon the rich resources of London’s museums and galleries to examine a wide range of portraits and self-portraits in painting and photography from different periods of history and from different cultures.

Students visit The National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Queen’s Collection, the Courtauld Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Creative Cities

Faculty: Arlene Davila
Course location: Buenos Aires

Latin America has been undergoing rapid urbanization and is increasingly recognized as a continent made up of “countries of cities,” yet the dominant Latin American image has been on indigenous or traditional communities, which are always imagined as rural and authentic, rather than modern and urbanized.

Buenos Aires provides an urban laboratory to explore culture in urban development, urban tourism, and the marketing and internationalization of tango. Guided tours and guest speakers enrich students’ appreciation of contemporary Buenos Aires.

Original post by Andy Gregory, NYUAD Public Affairs, available here.

NYU Prague Hosts American Astronaut Leroy Chiao

dsc02971Leroy Chiao, an American astronaut who has spent 229 days in space on four separate missions, presented his newly-published book, Make the Most of Your OneOrbitto a packed audience at NYU Prague in October.  The book, published by Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery, with the cooperation of NASA and the Chinese Authority of Flights of People into Space, is a collection of photos taken by Mr. Chiao, selected from the more than 16,000 images he shot from the space station between 1994 and 2005.

Chiao first decided he wanted to become an astronaut at the age of eight, when he saw Apollo 11 land on the moon, and he wondered whether it was possible to capture an image of the Great Wall of China from space.

“One of the great myths is that the Great Wall of China is the only man made object that is visible from space; I spent a lot of time with my telephoto lens trying to take a photo of it,” he said. “I didn’t see the wall myself – I saw many lines in the mountains, but I couldn’t tell which was a wall, a road or a riverbed.  I think I can say that no astronaut has identified the wall with his or her bare eye.”

Audience questions, not surprisingly,  focused on what it was like to be in space. “The first time I flew into space, I thought I knew what to expect – I had seen movies, talked to astronauts- but the first time I looked at the earth from space was very emotional,” said Chiao. “The colors were much brighter than I expected – It made me feel wonderful, joyful.  It also made me feel small.”

What about his thoughts on science fiction flicks? “I check my engineering hat at the door when I watch films about space,” he said. “There are a lot of technical errors, but some films do capture the visceral fear that all astronauts have – whether we admit it or not.”

Future of the space program

Mr. Chiao, who was on a White House committee to review NASA policy, also discussed his belief that international cooperation is crucial to further development of the space program with the international space station as a symbol of how countries can work together. “Whenever we have new astronauts come onto the space station, we greet them using a Russian tradition – giving them bread and salt,” he said. “But we use salt water so crystals floating around don’t get in our eyes.”

OneOrbit was first published in Czech and will soon come out in English and Chinese. The book was the brainchild of Czech gallery owner Zdenek Sklenar who befriended Mr. Chiao in 2009.  The astronaut  – who says he is an engineer, artist second – said that this book “brings together the universal values of art and rationality.”

“I was 20 yards from the Dalai Lama!”: NYU Prague students participate in the Forum 2000 Conference

October 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the Forum 2000 Conference, founded by former Czech President Vaclav Havel to support the values of democracy, respect for human rights, assist the development of civil society, and encourage tolerance.

NYU Prague has long had close ties to Forum 2000, as Jiri Pehe, director of NYU Prague, was chair of the program committee for ten years, and many NYU Prague professors currently act as organizers and delegates in the program.  Building upon these connections, NYU Prague students have the opportunity to participate in the conference, gaining access to world-renowned politicians, activists, academics and journalists.  Students can also apply to intern for the Forum.

forum2000-dalajlama-lucerna-13This year, NYU Prague students had the chance to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama – Nobel Laureate and an exiled Tibetan spiritual leader – speak about compassion in world politics, as well as dozens of other world leaders discuss the conference topic: The courage to take responsibility.

Anand Balaji, a finance/economics major in Stern Business School, interned at this year’s Forum. “It was an incredible event that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get access to as a sophomore in colleg,” said Balaji. As part of his responsibilities, Balaji reported on a panel about the philosophies of Havel and Gandhi, and also met Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and the leader of the Stanford Prison experiment.

Petr Mucha, professor of religious studies at NYU Prague, and member of the Forum 2000 program committee, invited his students to attend the Dalai Lama’s talk. Reilly Hilbert, a double major in religious studies (CAS) and acting (Tisch), shared her experience.

“We must make earnest of love and compassion in secular education. Not tying it to the next life, to heaven or hell, but to the present, with the understanding that harmonious living can only be achieved under compassion” —His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I am sitting in a white room in a very modern building, across the way from a very old building, on a small island in Prague. I am twenty minutes early and sweating because it’s not quite cold enough for my big coat, but too cold for my smaller one. I’m sitting in the second row, to my left is a political leader of a country of 46,000 discusses with two of his colleagues the reality of Trump’s systematic lies. To my right, a woman from India, hands folded, head down, mouth moving in what I think is a prayer. The Dalai Lama enters, everyone stands, and he shakes hands with people in the first row, and when he gets to my end, he sees the woman to my right and reaches out to her, over the bodies of the first row people. They exchange a few words, and she says, “Thank you for your blessing.” He waves at me, I smile and wave back, feeling both very big and very small at the same time. The woman next to me says, “He knows I’ve been praying for this.”

Praying for this. I am Catholic. I am a Catholic woman negotiating being also an artist, activist, actor, student, daughter, sister, friend and girlfriend in the 21st Century. It is painful, it is difficult, and I frequently find myself searching for truths in Religious Traditions that are not my own. In this way, the Dalai Lama let me down. His mission is Love, his mission is Compassion, Unity, and Togetherness. And where have I heard this before? In every homily, on every retreat, and in every meditative prayer I have had the opportunity to hear, see, and do. On every Krista Tippet On Being podcast, in every one of the numerous books that I’ve read about the potent experience of Religion—be it Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism, I have heard the same word: Love. And as I sat five feet from one of the Holiest men alive right now, I was disappointed to hear it again. Instead of feeling fulfilled and alive because of this ever present notion of love that surrounds me in everything I have been given the opportunity to do, I was sad that there wasn’t some magical new way of connecting to the world. As I continued listening to the other speakers, I worked to identify where this seemingly unfounded pain came from.

manes-gallery-tuesday-2Tarek Osman, author of the popular book Egypt on the Brink, and another panelist in the conversation with His Holiness, helped me investigate this dissatisfaction. Osman said that “Religion can put forward order, but there is a very thin line between order and control.”

I remembered, while he was speaking, the model brought forth by Stephen Bush of religion as being essentially based in three things: power, meaning, and experience. The Dalai Lama’s notion of boundless love, compassion for all people, is all well and good, but Osman also grapples with negative aspects of the power religion has.

Catholicism for me has been very powerful, in both positive and negative ways, and it can be difficult to sort out. So the fact that love can seemingly be used however it best works for people does not fit in the binary that instilled love in me in the first place. If religion can be used as a tool to harm in the name of love, it can be placed in a binary “evil” category. But if religion is only a source of “light and love,” it might be “good” but it disregards the evils present in societies today that are carried out in the name of religion. This is where the unrest began to clarify itself.

The third panelist, Daniel Herman, the Czech Republic’s Minister of Culture, spoke about the crisis of modernization, explaining that post-Communism, he finally understood the Jewish Exodus. It took 40 years to renew, it took several generations to reestablish, and it was not only a physical renewal, but a moral one. He explained that the Czech Republic is only in year 26 of its own “Exodus,” and said that many societies today are in the middle of their desert.

In the United States, he added, Americans are still in their own desert, coming out of slavery, World War 2, Vietnam, and the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements.

And maybe that is why love is so difficult for me, because in my binary brain, love should be easy, natural, and something we can just do. But I know better than this. I know love is actually the most difficult thing in the world. It goes against the tendency to compete, to overcome, and to win. It goes against the tendency to control, to possess, and to know. Loving is not knowing. Loving is learning, it is hoping, it is working, and it is hard.

The Dalai Lama also said we need to be more active in love. We need to strive for teaching love in secular education, because love, though incredibly difficult, is a universal idea. And love is what will bring us out of our deserts. Not romantic love, not familial love, but a love for humanity that is so often forgotten in our world of immediate gratification and confusion.

The Dalai Lama said, “When I lived in isolation in Tibet, Buddhism seemed the only way, then I went to India.” There is not one right way to negotiate love. There is not one path. And this recognition of unity beyond objectivity is what can open us to love in all its difficulty. I’m praying for this.

I want to say thank you to Professor Mucha for giving me the opportunity to attend this conference, as Religious Studies is not only my major, but also very close to my heart, and so I feel grateful not only for the learning experience, but for the personal growth it helped me obtain.

Photos taken from the Forum 2000 website here.