Spending the High Holidays away from home can be a lonely experience.
And, sadly, without the family around, many a Jewish college student simply ignores the call of the shofar — even the apples and honey — and attends class as usual.
But for countless others, the pull of these special days, fueled by memories of childhood Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holiday services and festive meals, is too strong to ignore. Even when they can’t get home to celebrate, they take a break from schoolwork long enough to celebrate in new ways with their campus “family.”
“I loved the holidays with my family, and I was pretty active at my temple,” says Melissa Denish, who left Philadelphia behind to attend Elon University in North Carolina. “But it’s too far to go home just for a couple of days, so I stay at school.”
Fortunately, for Denish and other Jewish college students, most schools offer opportunities for these young adults to be, if not exactly home for the holidays, at least able to celebrate these days together and, when it works, begin to find a spiritual home of their own.
And those who provide these services tend not to take the responsibility lightly. At a time when other Jews are getting a break from their jobs, Rabbi Zalman Deitsch says what he does during the holidays, including the 600 meals that he and his wife Sarah serve, may be the most important moments of his entire year.
“Much is at stake here,” says the rabbi, now in his 23rd year of leading High Holidays for Chabad at Ohio State University in the state’s capital of Columbus. “It’s an opportunity to reach our students with a deep experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to create a home away from home for the holidays.”
As he relates, “When they’re away from their families and on their own for the first time, they ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ If they have the right experience, they can take this into themselves for the rest of their lives, so it’s an amazing opportunity and also an awesome responsibility.”
“Each one of them who stays here on campus for the chagim [‘holidays’] is precious to us,” says Rabbi Chana Leslie Glazer. “For those who don’t go home, we know it’s a time of year when they need to feel part of something, a sense of community, and when we can help students feel empowered to take the reins of their Jewish lives.”
But the competition is stiff.
Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where Glazer is in her fourth year as chaplain for the Jewish community and a Hillel advisor, is “a very demanding school where missing even one class can be a problem, so even though university policy insists the professors be willing to make accommodations, I’m hearing more and more students who genuinely want to observe the holidays, but are concerned that missing material will affect their grades.”
“We’re at a stage in our lives when we’re no longer forced to come, so we need another reason—to see it as an opportunity to really learn about ourselves and our community, about different traditions than what we may have grown up with.”
The result: Many come only to evening meals and services. “But whenever they come,” she notes, “we work at making it a welcoming, special and nurturing experience for them.”
Tobin Gevelber would certainly understand how the students at Bucknell feel about missing class. His engineering curriculum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is also demanding. “But there’s no way I’m not going to go to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services,” he says. “That’s not really an option for me.”
One difference Gevelber notices from the holidays back at home in Boston: “There everyone you see is pretty much doing the holiday, too, but on campus for most people it’s just another day, and that feels kind of strange.”
Still, there is an advantage in being cast adrift from the comforts of home, he points out. “There it’s a more straightforward way of celebrating the holidays; there’s no question as to exactly what you’re doing, whereas at school it’s actually fun to make these decisions, to have that new independence in this area, to navigate the holidays yourself with a new awareness.”
Involving the students is key to the way Betsy Polk at Elon University in North Carolina constructs the services for those among the school’s 600 Jewish students who opt to stay on campus for the holidays.
“We have a fairly small population,” says Polk, who directs the Hillel for the university. “So we need to make sure our services are pluralistic and inclusive for our Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated and more observant students. Our challenge is creating a High Holiday experience where everybody feels comfortable.”
One approach Polk has found successful in her two years-plus on the job: “They need to know it’s going to be different from being at home, but when they say, ‘That’s not the melody we use,’ I answer, ‘Great. Let’s hear your melody. Maybe we can sing it together.’“
Unlike smaller schools where Jewish students attending services on campus need to find common ground, the larger ones can afford to offer more choices. Over at the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life at Columbia/Barnard Hillel, Lavine Family executive director Brian Cohen says students can select which service they feel comfortable with (“And if one doesn’t feel right to them, they can try the next one,” he adds). “My primary goal is to provide our Jewish students with a meaningful High Holiday experience, including services, meals, etc.”
To build momentum, Cohen’s team presents holiday programming not only in the Hillel building, but in dorms and other campus locales. “We want to reach the Jewish students, of course, but we also want the broader campus community to be aware that this is an important time for Jewish students and professors.”
A key ingredient: food. They serve hundreds of meals over these 10 days, including nearly 500 bagels at Yom Kippur break-fast.
Nor does he think that the presence of anti-Israel forces on his campus puts a damper on holiday celebration. “I think they feel safe expressing their Jewishness,” he adds. “It’s a beautiful sight, hundreds of students walking up to the Kraft Center at sundown on Rosh Hashanah.”
In fact, says OSU Chabad’s Rabbi Deitsch, “holidays away from home in a community that feels like family can give students an opportunity they never had before: to be open to the experience and bring themselves to the table, to begin to decide the kind of person they want to be beginning right now at the beginning of this new year.”
Now the religious and educational chair at the Elon Hillel, Denish is already reaching out to her fellow students to lead a prayer or a song or a reading from the Torah. “We’re at a stage in our lives when we’re no longer forced to come, so we need another reason — to see it as an opportunity to really learn about ourselves and our community, about different traditions than what we may have grown up with.”
When everyone comes willing to ask and answer questions, she adds, “the holidays can be a powerful learning experience and can have more of an impact than they did at home.”
“With no tickets or dress code required, we want our students to feel completely welcome,” says Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s Cohen. “Even the students who never got it or who were turned off as kids, we’re hoping they give it another shot.”