Jewish Students Gather to Celebrate the High Holidays
Written by Sara Garfinkle
Groups such as Orthodox Fellowship, Lutheran Society, SOMA, Catholic Society, Intervarsity, and Anglican Society meet weekly at Hillsdale College. The Jewish group on campus, The Hillsdale Chavurah, meets more than once per week to hold services, meals, and other events.
Chavurah services usually glow with candlelight. More often than not, the cardamom-tinted, yeasty smell of freshly baked challah wafts through the worship space. A few members of the group are trained musicians, and the tefillah (songs of prayer) resonate with harmonies as rich and warm as the fresh bread.
The Hillsdale Chavurah, meaning “group of friends” in Hebrew, meet weekly to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and for other holidays, including Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover. While the group has approximately ten Jewish members, they are frequently joined by nonjewish students who wish to learn and celebrate with them. In the wake of Christ Chapel dedication festivities, the Chavurah celebrated the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“Students here are able to involve themselves far more in religious rituals than if they had a lot of resources and strongly professionalized community,” said Dr. Joshua Fincher, a visiting professor in classics. “It’s also a very customizable environment, conforming to student interests and wishes, something that in a large community would be less possible.”
Dr. Fincher led the Chavurah’s Rosh Hashanah services—a holiday celebrating the Jewish new year, which fell on September 29—and invited students to assist in leading the services. As an essential component of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, Fincher sounded the shofar, the ram’s horn that Jews are commanded to hear on designated holidays. The clear brassy sound echoed across campus: holy fanfare to welcome the new year. The group celebrated with traditional apples and honey treats, wishing one another a year as sweet as their desserts.
Where Rosh Hashana was sweet and celebratory, Yom Kippur was introspective. Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, was observed the following week, as Hillsdale Chavurah met for Kol Nidre services Tuesday evening and Yom Kippur morning services the next day. The services were intimate and interspersed with conversation about the liturgy, new year resolutions, and spiritual reflection.
“I really enjoyed Yom Kippur services,” said Ben Garfinkle, college sophomore and Chavurah member. “The service was small but so much more meaningful for me personally than the big services I’m used to at my home synagogue.”
Yom Kippur is observed with a fast from food and water for twenty-five hours. “The fast was tough, but all my friends were really supportive. I went to a movie night with my sister and a bunch of our friends to break the fast. It was kind of untraditional, but it was great to be in a community with Christians who are so supportive and who help me celebrate my traditions,” Garfinkle said.
While being a religious minority presents challenges, both logistical and spiritual, it provides unique opportunities for members of the Chavurah.
“You have to teach and teach and teach again,” Dr. Fincher said. “You have to be an informer and apologist for your religion all the time. I think it’s a fun process because it means you have to be able to explain everything yourself so you can explain it to others who are curious.”
Many Hillsdale College students are curious about Judaism. Hillsdale offers Old Testament, Hebrew, Rabbinic Literature, and History of Jews in the United States classes to feed this curiosity. The schedule of visiting speakers typically include Hebrew and Israel scholars, Holocaust survivors, and interfaith panels.
“I have become much more active and proactive religiously than previously because I cannot rely on a settled community,” Dr. Fincher said. “As well, I’ve had to do far more study and research to ensure I know and can explain why we do what we do. This has very much strengthened my practice and my religious outlook.”
Sara Garfinkle, ’20, studies Rhetoric, Pulic Address, and Hebrew. She plans to be a speechwriter and teacher after graduation. Until then, you can find her baking bread, watching science fiction shows, going on adventures with her Pi Phi sisters, and pranking her younger brother Ben.
Published in November 2019