Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, an important fall holiday that calls for both rejoicing and introspection. From Sunday evening to Tuesday night (Oct. 2 through Oct. 4), students gathered for prayer services and celebratory meals and together welcomed the new year. They blew the shofar, ate traditional brisket, apples and honey, which signify a sweet new year. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, which takes place the following week, traditionally including a 25-hour period of fasting and praying.
According to the Co-President of the Chabad Jewish Community Jason Storch ’17, celebrating the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Vassar can be exciting and challenging. “At CJC we’re constantly growing with our community, we’re always one anecdote away from adopting a new semi tradition!” wrote Storch in an emailed statement.
The Religious and Spiritual Life Office is working with two student organizations, Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) and Chabad Jewish Community (CJC) to host a welcoming celebration for Jewish students at Vassar. Storch commented, “The fact that there are two Jewish organizations hosting distinct and varying services enables Jews to choose from a wider spectrum of religious celebrating.”
Interim Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and Interim Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joseph Glick noted, “We are bringing in Rory Katz, Vassar Class of 2009, to help lead our prayers. Rory is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological School. She brings a wealth of experience at connecting modern audiences with ancient rituals.”
VJU President Abigail Johnson ’17 said of the VJU’s celebrations, “We are doing interfaith torah study and a meal to end the holiday. This year is also our second year doing Tashlich with Vassar Temple, a local synagogue. Tashlich is a ceremony where we throw bread into a body of water (in this case, Sunset Lake) to cast off our sins for the New Year.”
Both religious tradition and communal meals are key to the holiday. The VJU poster reads, “Come for the food, stay for the prayers, bask in the warm glow of community.” Both Storch and Glick commented on the importance of the meals and prayers. Storch explained, “The dinner always serves as a coming-together point to kick the new year off right with community and spiritual strength. I personally appreciate the fact that it coincides with the opening few weeks of the semester, that way I can get ready for a new year spiritually, religiously and academically all at once.”
Glick added, “The prayer services, filled with songs, silence and discussion, serve as a tool for the community to contemplate our past, present and future together.”
For many students, college might be their first time celebrating Rosh Hashanah away from home. Yet Evelyn Frick ’19 [full disclosure: Evelyn Frick serves as humor editor on The Miscellany News], among others, found Vassar to be a place into which she can root her Jewishness. “Being a Jew at Vassar is a complex, strange experience. There are more Jews compressed into this tiny bubble than any other place I have been in my life. But we’re still a minority, and a lot of Jews here are more culturally Jewish than they are religiously (myself included). In that way, I think Jewish holidays have a distinct presence on campus.”
She continued, “I had never celebrated Rosh Hashanah or any other Jewish holiday away from my family before so I remember feeling nervous and melancholy. But when I went to services and I started to say prayers and sing songs that I have known since I was little. With new friends and a new Jewish community, Vassar became a home for me more than it had before.”
Storch seconded, “Being on a campus with people, Jewish and non-Jewish, of so many walks of life makes the holidays really different from my hometown where everyone is basically either reform Jewish or entirely secular. But having places like the VJU or, especially for me, the Chabad Jewish Community and the home of Rabbi Daniel and Dalia Sanoff make being away from home less of a curse and more of a unique blessing.”
However, students also face challenges when they are trying to balance schoolwork and holiday celebration. Storch recounted that for two of the past three holidays at Vassar, he had to study for a test or quiz while fasting for 24 hours.
Glick explained, “Many Jews abstain from work during Rosh Hashanah. At a place like Vassar, it can be incredibly difficult for students to pull back from the obligations of classwork and other activities to attend prayer services and rest over the Holiday. While it is up to every Jewish student to decide whether they are willing to miss class during this time, students should know that the College views religious observance as a valid reason to miss class.”
Understanding that it is not necessarily easy for students to ask their instructors for this time off, the Religious and Spiritual Life and the Dean of Studies Office sent out a reminder email about religious observance and class attendance to all faculty at the beginning of the semester. All students who struggle with balancing academic work and religious observance are encouraged to talk to advisors at the Religious and Spiritual Life Office or members of the VJU board.
Organizations like VJU are actively seeking solutions for students’ dilemma. Johnson stated, “Since Vassar doesn’t have time off for Rosh Hashanah, we make sure that there a lot of different services being offered at different times so that students who feel they can’t take time off from class or other commitments can come to at least something.”
Johnson also felt that Vassar as a whole could be a lot more conscious of religious holidays of all kinds. “Vassar tends to keep going even when many students are stopping their daily lives to go to services and pray and be together and it can be very difficult for students to catch up with work. It’s particularly hard this year because the high holidays fall during midterms.”
Frick said that including more Vassar community members in celebrations could help raise awareness of the holidays. She said, “Services and celebrations are welcome to non-Jews but I think there’s a difference between having celebrations be open to everyone and actively encouraging non-Jews to attend. We should be doing the latter. Jewish services and rituals are so unique that I think for any non-Jewish person who came, they would leave with an expanded knowledge of what Judaism is and would hopefully convey their new knowledge with others.”
Johnson also spoke about the ways in which VJU tries to make sure everyone feels included. She wrote, “We always make sure to have people at the door to greet newcomers to the services so everyone feels welcomed into the space.”
Additionally, the VJU allows students to participate in majority of the planning, execution and leading of the services. Johnson noted, “We have students reading torah, opening the arc, sharing prayers and music and giving d’vars (sermons). Additionally, we always emphasize that students are welcome to come the services, the meal or both. If you’re not religiously practicing but you want to spend Rosh Hashanah with people around a good meal, we want to make space for that too.”