During a recent Rosh Hashanah prayer service, I let the beautiful voice of the cantor wash over me as she recited timeless metaphors about the power of God. In those moments of religious connection, I feel an unnamable passion coursing through me. For a fleeting moment, I feel part of something so much larger than myself, something so grand and moving that it can’t even be put into words.
To put it lightly, religion is complicated. Capable of inspiring both tremendous injustices against other human beings, as well as beautiful works of art, poetry and literature, religion is a mysterious force that can be as hard to practice as it is to pin down. But in the midst of the High Holiday services two weeks ago, I realized that I hadn’t felt like a part of anything bigger than myself for a very long time — not since the first few days of college.
During that period of time, I had a FroCo group that met every night, constantly attended events designated for first years and was showered with advice and campus information at every turn. In that first week — whether it was sitting in Woolsey Hall at the Opening Assembly listening to the Yale Glee Club sing “From This Bright Hour” or going for my first morning jog past Sterling Library — I felt this constant “Yale-ness,” this belonging to a massive intangible community of thinkers, students, professors and professionals.
In many circles, comparing my Yale identity to my religious identity would be considered shallow, even heretical. But for me, the similarities between the two are undeniable — a feeling of my own smallness in the face of something so much more powerful than me, a commitment to a certain set of values that are supposed to guide how I live my life, a set of shared songs and traditions… the list goes on.
However, the feeling of belonging to something bigger dissipated after the first few weeks of college. Classes started. I had to hand in my first problem set. I needed to pick up a package, buy a new textbook, meet someone for coffee, get my schedule signed and figure out what the Durfee’s hype was all about. Life sometimes has this way of hitting one over the head. And it did.
College culture demands of us to be so caught up in our own worlds — our classes, our friends, our grades. Taking the time to acknowledge the things that are so much larger than ourselves can be difficult.
But there are ways to participate in something larger even within the hectic universe of college life. This past Thursday, 400 Yale students and members of the New Haven community staged a walkout in support of Nelson Pinos Gonzalez, a father of three local students and an undocumented immigrant who has sought refuge in a local church for close to a year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents told Pinos that he had to leave the country and return to Ecuador in 2017. As a result, he was asked not to return to his manufacturing job of 15 years until he could resolve his immigration status, per a Yale Daily News report earlier last week.
I wasn’t at the walkout, but fighting for Pinos was a way for Yalies to reach for something higher. There are reasons why humans love to gather in groups. We like having the comfort of others, we like fitting in, we like finding purpose through shared experience. But as seen with the Pinos walkout, humans also gather together simply because doing so enables them to accomplish so much more than they ever could have as individuals.
Rosh Hashanah services were only as powerful as they were because there were 150 other people chanting alongside me. That’s 150 other voices flooding my ears, multiplying and amplifying my own prayers. It is no accident that the liturgy was written in the plural.
“We come from dust, and return to dust…we are like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream,” reads one portion of the climactic liturgical poem of the High Holidays — Unetaneh Tokef. How moving it can be to step back from your own life and — for just a moment — to feel like nothing more than a breath of air, a passing breeze in a sea of 150 other people.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first-year in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .