Muhlenberg Hillel has long been a place for students to connect through participation in various events and religious practice. However, the unique constraints and constituents of this semester posed a challenge to include both remote students and on-campus students in the observance of Yom Kippur. The observance began on Sunday, September 27, and lasted until Monday, September 28, with the college mandating a closure on Monday in congruence with the Jewish holiday.
On Tuesday, September 22, information was sent from the Chaplain’s Office to inform students on how they could observe the holiday and participate in any events in either of the two learning formats. The High Holiday began with a student-led Kol Nidre service on Sunday at 6:30pm, followed by Shacharit (the morning service), Limmund (Hillel conversations), Neilah (the evening service), and Break Fast on Monday at 7:30 pm. All of these events involved the students and most if not all were student-led.
Several other campus institutions were willing to temporarily alter existing schedules to accommodate the practices of those observing the holiday. For example, despite the closing hours of the Wood Dining Commons coinciding with sundown, meals were served later than usual for those breaking the fast on Monday night. Yom Kippur also affected the operations of the Wood Dinings Common on Monday, September 28, with brunch from 10am-2pm and the closure of the Noshery. Java Joe and the General’s Quarters adjusted their hours as well, from the original 11:30am-11:00pm to 2:00-11:00pm.
April Cunningham, the Assistant Director of Muhlenberg Hillel, stated, “Our biggest challenge this year was providing accessible and pluralistic programming for all of our students while following the Covid-19 policies and guidelines for our campus. Through the support of Religious Life and Student Affairs, we were able to offer in-person, socially distanced programming for our on-campus population. Our remote population engaged on a virtual level with their peers and also were able to take part in offerings through their home synagogues and Jewish communities.
However, Shira Holtz ’24, had a different reaction to how these events were portrayed and did not attend any of the in-person activities. Holtz declared, “Due to the pandemic, this year was the first time I spent Yom Kippur away from my family. On Yom Kippur my family and I always apologize to each other for any wrongdoings from the past year and it just didn’t feel the same having to text them that message. ”
She continued her explanation of the adjustment, adding, “I really enjoyed the programming that we did from 2-5pm, since it allowed me to get to know other Jews on campus and it also took my mind off the fast while still adding to my observance of Yom Kippur.”
Hillel’s administrative team showed its dedication to preserving the cultural opportunities of a ‘normal semester’, keeping the enduring standard that community members were granted an outlet to observe and share their faith.
Ms. Cunningham added, “The Leffell Center is very fortunate to have a dedicated group of student leaders who are both members of our student board, engagement interns, and active members in our community. It was these student leaders who assisted us in providing outreach to our on-campus community through the organizational efforts of Matan Kogen `22 who served as our Student Coordinator for Observant Student Support for the Leffell Center.”
Remote student programming through Hillel International supports the connection of thousands of college students globally, through www.higherholidays.org. Through this platform, Hillel has been able to connect Muhlenberg students to a global network of peers and professionals through the observance of Yom Kippur and tenets of the Jewish new year.
Ultimately, Yom Kippur was observed successfully for students on all platforms, with a unique approach given the current circumstances and physical restrictions. While students could not visit the local synagogues in the Lehigh Valley area or even in their hometowns, the spirit was still alive and Muhlenberg Hillel adapted. Thanks to the work of Hillel International, the program staff manager Tayla Inbar, and the leadership skills of Matan Kogen’22, the impact and meaning of the High Holidays could be shared throughout the community.