Celebrating the High Holidays on Campus Means Blending the New With the Familiar

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Local Hillels are helping college students who can’t get home for the holidays to enjoy the holidays surrounded by members of the community.

Freshman year of college, when many learn how to do laundry for the first time, is the only time it’s acceptable to walk around campus with a map — if only for the first week.
And in some cases, it’s the first time students will be away from home for the High Holidays.
That’s where campus organizations like Hillel come in to help make that adjustment easier, especially for first-time students.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really hit them that they’re away until the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Josh Bolton, senior Jewish educator of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hillel at Penn has many programs geared more specifically for freshmen to help them adjust without stepping too far out of their comfort zone.
“We have Rosh Hashanah dinners in Hillel, and dinners outside of Hillel,” he said, citing the dinners and breaking the fast for Yom Kippur that are hosted by the Renaissance project.
Some of these dinners are hosted around the dorms, which are geared more specifically toward freshmen, he said.
Creating a “homey” atmosphere is something other Hillels strive for as well.
Hillel at Temple’s goal is to become the students’ home away from home, said assistant director Trish Swed, which comes with challenges for those who are adjusting to being at school.
“For some students, it really is [difficult] because they’re used to going home; it’s scary to be away and not really know,” Swed said. “You don’t necessarily have your grandmother’s kugel recipe to keep you comfortable.”
Hillel at Temple is infusing some of its own holiday culinary tradition into its programs. Students can go apple picking at Linvilla Orchards before the holiday starts to get that “community feel,” she said.
They try to do a variety of events and programs for the holidays, in addition to student-led services, to give students the chance to find their own way of becoming part of the community in a way that is meaningful for them, she added.
For erev Rosh Hashanah, for example, students will be doing tashlich at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a new event this year.
There will also be “lunch and learn” programs and a shofar-blowing that is open to all students.
“What these programs do,” she said, “is give these students a sense of community because they belong to the Jewish community here [at Hillel] and they can find their own way to celebrate and bring in the new year that’s unique to them.”
Hillel just finished its freshman orientation program, Fresh Fest, which allowed students to move onto campus two days earlier than the rest of the student body. This way, Swed said, the students have a chance to get to know what Temple’s Jewish community is about and create connections.
Similarly, Drexel University offered a chance for freshmen to move in before the rest of their class and get involved with Hillel — though the timing presented its own unique challenges, as Drexel’s academic year begins later than other schools.
When Rosh Hashanah comes around, only freshmen are on campus. But that provides an easy way to get them involved with Hillel at Drexel, which will partner with Penn for services, said executive director/campus rabbi, Isabel de Koninck.
“The High Holidays at Drexel feel a little bit different than other campuses where students have already been around a little bit and built connections,” she said, “but it’s nice because it’s new and it literally starts their freshman year.”
They are setting up “a bunch of tabling” during the weekend of new student orientation — with plenty of apples and honey to nosh on, de Koninck added — to allow students to connect with Hillel and “help students think about what they want out of this new year what kind of blessings and hopes and dreams they want to set their intentions for the new year with.”
It’s been a summer full of logistics, de Koninck quipped, adding that there is another set of challenges for Yom Kippur later in the month while Pope Francis is in town.
Other schools are using the holidays as a chance to invite more students to get involved.
Hillel at West Chester University, with around 100 members, has only been around officially for two years, said the organization’s advisor, Janine Jankovitz.
“It’s small, but we’re hoping it’ll keep growing and more people will join West Chester Hillel and hear about programs we’re having.”
High Holidays services were student-led for the first time last year, whereas in the past students would go home or go to nearby synagogues.
“It’s exciting now to be able to have programming that’s distinctly Hillel,” she said.
This year, they are also holding services on erev Rosh Hashanah and there will be a community oneg. On the morning of the first day of the holiday, there will also be a large bagel brunch.
“We’re going to have an event on campus to hopefully get new students’ attention that we’re on campus and we’re an alternative for whatever kind of Jewish community needs that they have,” she added.
A common goal among all of the schools is to help students find their own comfort in observing the holiday in a new environment.
“The High Holidays tend to be about structures and traditions that are resonant for students,” Drexel’s de Koninck said. For new students, she continued, the holidays are a “really welcoming opportunity to meet new people and figure out what they want their connections to Jewish life to look like in the first weeks of their college experience.”
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