Campuses Plan for High Holidays During Pandemic
Gilad Skolnick looks forward to the Jewish High Holidays every year. The holiest days in the Jewish calendar normally mark not only the beginning of the Jewish new year but also the beginning of the school year at Northeastern, in Boston, MA, where Skolnick serves as the executive director of the Northeastern Hillel. Spanning from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the High Holidays are traditionally the time when Skolnick welcomes new Jewish students to campus, reconnects with returning students, and provides opportunities for students to build deeper relationships to their religious tradition and within the broad Jewish community on campus.
However, like so much else at college this year, the High Holidays will be very different, highlighting an additional challenge as campuses struggle to try to bring students back, and keep them safe.
“Traditionally there are different services for reformed, conservative, and orthodox Jews, and a lot of our celebrations revolve around communal prayers and meals,” explains Skolnick, “With the health and safety restrictions this year our university has specified that we cannot have any big events on campus, especially any that involves food. Which is disheartening.”
Skolnick explains that though it has been challenging to work with the restrictions, he and his team have been focusing on ways in which they can help the Jewish campus community celebrate the holidays outside the campus, including plans to send gift bags and kits to students that will have candles, apples, honey, grape juice, and other necessities that will help them celebrate the holidays in their apartments or dorms with a smaller group of friends or by themselves.
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Joy Getnick, Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Rochester understands that working on college campuses during Covid-19 requires prioritizing safety, but also imagines this moment as an opportunity to be innovative in how to authentically celebrate the Jewish holy days. “It’s important for us to abide by university rules and policies, but also important to ask how we are giving our students opportunities to participate in the traditional touchpoints of our holidays.”
Getnick assumed her position on campus nine weeks ago and sees this as an opportunity to reimagine old traditions and make room for new ones.
“It’s quite challenging to come into something like this when you’re new, but I also see it as a freeing opportunity to try new things,” says Getnick. “The pandemic has sort of thrown all our traditions out of the window and pushed us to rethink what we really want to hold on to, and what we can do differently. I am excited to try new things and learn from what works.”
She adds, “We’re thinking of doing a hybrid of activities so that students who are on campus can join in for some of the festivities – - like an outdoor Shabbat experience, kosher meals to go, a painting night, a tashlich experience -- a Rosh Hashanah tradition where students can feed the ducks in the river that flows by the campus, and other activities that people can join in small groups and authentically feel like they’re a part of the community. Hillel International is also offering an incredible mix of virtual activities that we will adapt for our students and community who will be joining us online.”
Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world and works with thousands of college students globally. Earlier in March, they launched Hillel@Home, a website that offers various virtual resources, workshops, and activities for students and educators to adapt and engage with as they shift into online classes.
For the upcoming High Holidays, Hillel is running Higher Holidays, an international gathering of the voices of students, Hillel professionals and a cast of talented performers, writers, musicians and more to bring the themes, practices, and traditions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to life in this very different time. Many campus-based Hillel organizations will be live streaming services led by students wherever they are and, in those cases, where permissible, some campus Hillel will be providing prayer, educational and social in-person gatherings. Some of these activities include live streaming Kol Nidre the pinnacle experience of the High Holiday experience featuring Grammy award-winning performer Adam Kantor and members of The Band’s Visit, as well as meaningful creative engagement with the themes of the moment including forgiveness, racial equity, life’s purpose, and processing loss. There will also be shorter events on social media where students will be asked critical questions about who they are and what they are – offering a space for them to journal and form deeper connections with one another.
“We will use this opportunity to create change and to ask the critical questions of the holidays, which perhaps not coincidentally, are the critical questions of the college years. We can address the big questions: ‘who am I?’ ‘what am I here for? and ‘how does my purpose meet the needs of the world?’” He adds, “So while there’s a mourning of what was, we also realize that ‘what got us here, won’t get us there’ and so we’ve gotten to work.”
Some campuses are taking this moment to continue having deeper conversations around racial justice as protests for racial equity continue to rise around the nation following the murder of George Floyd.
“I think in some ways the holidays will be very intense this year because a lot of things have been turned on their head during the pandemic and things look a lot different than we could have possibly imagined,” says Rabbi Ira J. Dounn, Senior Jewish Educator at Center for Jewish Life at Princeton Hillel. “I think we’re going to delve deeper into some difficult topics, not just about the pandemic, but also about racial justice, and how this is a moment for reckoning and repenting.”
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Rabbis and Jewish Life coordinators across campuses are hoping to take the High Holidays as a moment to spread the same message: that though times are dire now, there is always hope.
“In the grander scheme of Jewish history there have been many pandemics, and many tragedies that our people have experienced, and I know that this too shall pass,” says Dounn. “It’s hard right now but I have hope that in the coming years, hopefully, sooner than later, we will be back on campus again and we will celebrate our holidays together as a community. It’s disheartening and disappointing that a lot of things are canceled, but the hope is not canceled.”
Rabbi Nick Renner, the Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Delaware Hillel, echoes similar sentiments and shares how Jewish history has adapted and evolved through different historic emergencies.
“Traditionally in Judaism, it has often been times of great distress and destruction that has yielded certain kinds of flowering and creativity. Like how originally, we’d sacrifice animals to God and what changed that was the destruction of the Second Temple 2,000 years ago. Suddenly there wasn’t a focal point where you could bring those sacrifices to and there wasn’t a sort of dwelling place for God, and there wasn’t priesthood in the same way as well. Then instead of sacrifices they innovated prayer and they innovated that to have a relationship with God you didn’t need to kill animals, you could speak, sing, and offer words to God. Instead of needing to go to the Great Temple in Jerusalem to pray, they decided we can go to a synagogue so that there’s a dwelling place for God everywhere in the world in every community. From the destruction came the innovation that made Jewish people who we are today.”
He adds, “Today, in this time of great distress, I hope we also see it as an invitation to think, to dream, to build, and to see what it is we might be able to create that's different than what we might have ever imagined before.”
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.