High Holiday Feature: College Students Celebrate Holidays Away from Families

For many observant Jewish students who attend college hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away from home, finding a meaningful way to spend the High Holidays on campus can be a difficult challenge.

“The services offered on my campus are like the ones I go to at home, but I know that for many of my friends who are not as religious or do not know Hebrew, it is difficult for them to find a service where they feel comfortable,” said Michele Kornbluth, a student at the University of Delaware.

Many students lacking strong Jewish backgrounds want to learn more about their religion during this time, yet feel intimidated to attend services or enter a Hillel, according to Rhoda Weisman, director of Hillel’s Steinhardt Jewish Service Campus Service Corps, a 4-year-old program founded by philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt that places college graduates in Hillels to work to promote Jewish life on campus.

To help combat these problems, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has developed a series of programs to attract Jewish students, which are often administered by the Steinhardt fellows:

The University of California at San Diego offered an “Alternative Rosh Hashanah.” Instead of traditional services, students participated in High Holiday workshops that related to various Jewish themes such as environmentalism, feminism, teshuvah or meditation.

Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges sent bags filled with apples and honey to the mailboxes of all Jewish students. Also enclosed in the bag was information about options on campus for the high holidays, as well as information on what the High Holidays celebrate.

Brown University had an apples-and-honey party on the main quadrangle after Rosh Hashanah services. This program was specifically designed to provide students a place to socialize after services ended and allow students who did not attend services a chance to participate in a Jewish activity during the High Holidays.

Indiana University provided its students with an opportunity to “Send a Card Around the World.” In this program, tables were set up in dorm rooms for students to send Rosh Hashanah greeting cards to small Jewish communities in Africa, Asia or South America. The Hillel campus fellow there also went around campus dressed up as Winnie-the-Pooh, distributing honey to students.

The University of Washington in Seattle sponsored a Yom Kippur discussion. The goal of this program was to provide a forum for reflection about Yom Kippur for people who do not attend services or observe the holidays in a traditional fashion.

College campuses also offer alternatives as far as services are concerned:

Services are often held through campus Hillels or Jewish groups.

Many Hillels can work with the neighboring Jewish community to provide tickets to a local synagogue’s services.

Campuses often offer home hospitality to Jewish students on the High Holidays. This way, students can celebrate in a family environment that is near school.

To make the services more enriching, says Weisman, “bring reading material into the service on either Jewish or holiday themes.” That way, students who are bored during the service can still learn and reflect about things Jewish.

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