High Holidays on a College Campus

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The High Holidays are an important time for many Jewish families to come together and celebrate the beginning of the new year while reflecting on the previous one, but for some college students, they’re in a different position of being away from home and having academic responsibilities that overlap with the holidays.

This year, University of Maryland students are looking forward to another High Holiday season, with the strong local Jewish community and resources of campus-based Jewish organizations helping to make things feel more like home.

UMD Hillel Building. Photo by Ben Robinson

When it comes to managing holiday celebrations around a school schedule and difficult travel logistics, there’s no one way to tackle the issue, but it’s certainly possible.

“It’s definitely super manageable to be here during the holidays. I think there’s a system of people kind of following what everyone else does. Like, everyone goes home for the first days of Sukkot, everyone goes home for the first day of Rosh Hashanah,” said Talia Moshman, a junior from Baltimore.

This seemed to be the most common practice for most students, going home and celebrating Rosh Hashanah and maybe one day of Sukkot, with several saying they elected to stay on campus for Yom Kippur.

The consensus was missing multiple days for Sukkot would mean too much missed school, and with Yom Kippur being one day it is hard to travel, especially for out-of-state students. This was compounded by the fact that these holidays are all within a several weeks of each other, making multiple return trips to home very difficult.

There is also the added benefit of staying on campus and participating in programs and activities held by campus Jewish organizations like MEOR, Hillel and Chabad. These groups all host events for students to get together and celebrate, a valuable offering for those who can’t make it home.

“We try to make the High Holy Days accessible by offering a variety of service options, including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, as well as a Highlights Service led by our Executive Director,” said Dawn Savage, UMD Hillel Assistant Director of Student Life. “We also provide free meals for all of Rosh Hashanah and have been tabling on campus with apples and honey to get the word out about how students can celebrate the holidays this year.”

Other groups like MEOR provide educational services and Chabad has activities like Simchat Torah dancing and Challah bakes to go along with holiday meals.
“The Jewish organizations have put on events and the events are really nice. And it’s really good to have that kind of home feeling away from home,” said Sydney Klapman, a senior from Chicago.

But for out-of-state students like Klapman, there are other options for getting that home atmosphere to celebrate. Most prominently, students will have a friend or extended family that lives nearby host them during their celebrations.

“I have cousins that live in Baltimore. So, I’m going to their house tonight and I’m going to my friend’s house who lives in Rockville tomorrow. And on Sunday, we’re doing a little brunch at my other friend’s house and she lives in Bethesda,” Klapman said as she described her Rosh Hashanah plans.

And these holidays with friends are great opportunities to strengthen the bonds between people and give them lasting positive memories of holidays spent away from home.

Sam Low, a junior from New York, said he didn’t know many people going into his freshman year, and that being able to spend the holidays with the families of people he’d only recently met was a new but rewarding experience.

“I have a bunch of friends who offer their homes very willingly and very kindly, especially one of my close friends who I’ve gone to like four times I guess…So that was really special to me and now we’re extremely close because of it,” Low said.

But beyond the celebrations, students still have classes and homework that can catch up with them quickly if they’re not careful. UMD doesn’t give a day off for any of the High Holidays, so students must do their best to stay on top of academics despite being busy with holiday observances.

“I talked to all my professors and discussed if I don’t think I’ll be able to do my work on time, but I tried to do my work early, get ahead of it so it’s not too hard when I miss class,” said Talya Lesbon, a sophomore from Silver Spring.

This was a sentiment echoed by Klapman, who said that some years she’s struggled to get her absences excused, but this year she’s been fortunate to have Jewish professors who canceled class.

“It’s slightly difficult, especially since most teachers don’t even know what Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is, even though it’s such a heavily Jewish populated campus. So, it’s hard to get an excused absence. Hillel does provide a letter to send to people, it’s like a template,” Klapman said.

But despite the challenges of celebrating the holidays while juggling a college education, students were excited and ready for a new year.

When asked if anything about her holiday experience could be improved, Lesbon thought for a second before simply saying, “I can’t think of anything.”

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