While the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life’s doors remain closed for the fall, some on-campus students still heard the familiar sound of the shofar — a ram’s horn blown on Jewish holidays — from their dorm room windows last week.
The ten-day period bookmarked by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — this year, from Sept. 18 to Sept. 28 — is the holiest in the Jewish calendar. This year’s holidays were bound to be different: no boisterous, celebratory New Year feasts and limited synagogue services. Still, Yale’s Jewish community adapted its traditions to adhere to public health guidelines, providing a time for reflection and renewal amid the pandemic.
“Beyond services, we provided Rosh Hashanah care packages complete with the traditional foods of apples and honey symbolizing our hope for a sweet new year, festive prepackaged Rosh Hashanah meals for those who registered, as well as packages with which students could break their Yom Kippur fasts,” said Uri Cohen, Slifka’s executive director.
According to Cohen, Slifka held online services that drew over 100 students on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And because many observant Jews do not use technology during the Sabbath and the holy days, Slifka also held socially distanced services outdoors.
Annie Giman ’24, Jewish Culture chair of Hillel Student Board, also told the News that the High Holidays this year involved a variety of educational programming over Zoom. She and Education Chair Sam Pekats ’23 ran events addressing the High Holidays in a time of loneliness, as well as discussions about the “Jewish Home.”
The last in a series of online salons, entitled “Fear, Action and Resilience: Jewish Responses to Climate Crisis” will be hosted by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin on Oct. 5. Hosting these events virtually, according to Giman, means that attendees now include alumni, parents and other community members who otherwise would not be able to attend on campus.
“It’s been a little but tricky because Slifka as a whole is so dependent on community spaces and being together, but we’ve been trying to bridge that gap through a mix of in-person and online programming to make sure that anyone who wants to be involved in Slifka is able to,”
David Foster ’23 was beginning to plan a second annual Yom Kippur food drive as early as last spring, following a successful inaugural drive during his first year. Many Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a day of repentance and renewal. Last year, students — both those who fasted for Yom Kippur and those who did not — raised $1,000 in hygiene and food products purchased with their Durfee’s meal swipes to benefit the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.
Reluctant to drop those plans, Foster helped oversee this year’s donation drive from his New Jersey home. Community members were instructed to drop off any unopened, non-perishable foods received from Yale Dining in front of Slifka on Sunday afternoon, the day before Yom Kippur. Those off campus were also given opportunities to participate by donating to their local food pantries. This year, the donation drive collected “two large boxes” worth of food, Foster said.
“It’s a really hard time to organize events on campus,” Foster said. “Campus is emptier and it’s harder to coordinate. But we’re really happy with what we achieved and we’re looking forward to making something bigger in the future.”
From Oct. 2 to Oct. 9 is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a weeklong harvest festival and one that is traditionally held outdoors.
Normally, a large crowd of students would congregate under a singular sukkah, a hut-like structure constructed during Sukkot, for meals, prayers and other activities. This year, however, Slifka constructed five sukkahs around New Haven and asked students to book slots in advance, to adhere to public health guidelines.
For students on or off-campus in New Haven, this in-person programming allows for some semblance of physical observance of the holidays. For students not in New Haven, however, maintaining that same level of connection to the Yale Jewish community has proven to be more challenging.
Giman, who is currently at home in New York, noted that the environment created by in-person services and music is what makes religious programming so meaningful. These aspects are unable to be replicated through Zoom, Giman said.
Max Heimowitz ’23, communications chair of Hillel Student Board, who is also not in New Haven, agreed that reaching students is much harder without a shared physical space.
“Basically, we communicate into the void and hope that people are getting it,” Heimowitz told the News.
However, both he and Giman felt that the online format of many of Slifka’s events have prompted students to seek out connections and community with greater intentionality.
Heimowitz said that because of how hard he needs to work to connect with others, his friendships with other Hillel Student Board members have become richer.
“[We’ve] created an outlet to get to know each other a lot better,” Heimowitz said.
The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life is located on 80 Wall St.
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