September 8, 2016 — Pepperdine Law professors Sukhsimranjit Singh (Sikh), Naomi Goodno (Christian), Ahmed Taha (Sunni Muslim), and Michael Helfand (Orthodox Jew) discussed their lives and careers before a packed house of nearly 100 law students today. The panel was the latest in the series of events celebrated each year as Diversity Week. University chaplain Sara Barton moderated the discussion, which was marked by a sense of deep collegiality among the four professors and frequent audience laughter.
“What brings you hope”
Asked to reflect on what it was like to work at Pepperdine Law and what brings them hope each day, the professors agreed (video) that Pepperdine has a warmth and sophistication about religion and discussion that they rarely encounter elsewhere. Goodno mentioned that she valued being able to pray with students in her office and the fact that many students come to the school on some sort of spiritual journey. Singh has taught cross-cultural negotiation and similar classes at several institutions during his career, and though Pepperdine is the only that identifies with a specific religion, he has felt an particular respect for his Sikh faith at this institution. Taha talked about a daily prayer session attended by members of the community, and Helfand recounted his experiences at conferences where others seemed surprised by the fact that not only was he accepted at Pepperdine but that the students seemed more prepared to discuss his faith in a sophisticated way.
“A practice you cherish”
Another question put to the panel was a particular religious practice that they cherished in their daily lives. Helfand talked about Sabbath and setting aside outside engagements and technology to be with his family for the day. Taha enjoyed the fact that stopping five times a day for prayer created reminders to break away and not get caught up in life. Singh noted that the Sikh value music and meditation — which he explores by being lost in things for a time, rather than simply sitting and thinking of nothing — as well as the practice of early bedtimes and then early mornings often spent with family. Goodno talked about a custom of praying while driving, drawing laughter when she suggested that God must have had the intention of deepening her spiritual life when He brought her to Los Angeles and its epic traffic jams.
The world today
The discussion continued with sober reflections about the current state of politics in the United States and the resulting impact on religious diversity in the country. Several of the professors regretted the dark tone and encouraged students to “be the light” in the world.
The panel then wrapped with each professor talking about how faith impacted their vocational choices. Singh said that his work in dispute resolution aligned with his convictions about reconciliation and “blessing the whole humanity” (a concluding thought in Sikh prayers). Goodno reminded the students that their dreams “probably aren’t big enough” yet, and that faith taught her to be satisfied with the journey to “something perfect for you.” Taha recounted working in several unfulfilling jobs before finding life as a law professor, in which he could be learning and teaching about things he cared about each day; he advised students to be wary of letting life and work define success for them. Helfand also enjoyed being able to pursue his joint passions of law and religion each day and taking control of his time.