Area Hillels, Chabads want to hold services in person

Rendering of the new GW Hillel building now under construction. Courtesy of GW Hillel

By Lisa Woolfson

As schools start to reopen, an unusual Jewish new year is around the corner. Hillel and Chabad student centers at area universities have to decide how to conduct Rosh Hashanah services and programming in a way that is both safe and celebratory. These organizations have to follow the protocols their universities but ultimately are in charge of much of the decision making.

At the University of Maryland in College Park, there will be outdoor in-person and virtual activities for Rosh Hashanah, according to Rabbi Ari Israel, the executive director of Maryland Hillel.

“We’re going to hopefully offer a traditional egalitarian service in person for about 50 people, which is going to be outdoors, as well as multiple Orthodox prayer spaces within pods of about 50 people,” said Israel. Reform services will be virtual.

Noah Broth, a senior finance and information systems double major at U-Md. plans to attend the outdoor Orthodox services.

“I definitely think that is the smartest and safest way to have services,” he said.

Around campus, Hillel is organizing services for small groups of people who aren’t comfortable going to a full service. These small gatherings will include meditation, shofar blowing and educational opportunities.

“The reason we’re gathering is still the same reason, which is to be reflective, to be thoughtful. To give an eye to who we are as a people, what’s important to us,” Israel said.

At American University in the District, all Rosh Hashanah programming will be online, in accordance with university regulations.

“We will be offering students as well as members of the extended AU Hillel family the opportunity to participate in higher holidays streaming services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said Jason Benkendorf, executive director of American University Hillel. Hillel International’s “Higher Holidays” virtual programming will be available for viewing.

“Even in a normal year, we know that many of our students connect with the holidays and the themes of the holidays not exclusively through prayer services. So, we’re really trying to think of what opportunities exist this year in particular to engage with meaningful learning and reflection,” Benkendorf said.

“We’re really optimistic that members of our community can still have a really meaningful and memorable High Holiday season together,” he added.

George Washington University Hillel and Georgetown University will each host a virtual service on Erev Rosh Hashanah and login to “Higher Holidays” the next day. Adena Kirstein, the executive director of GW Hillel, said her agency is looking into offering in-person activities.

“We are still investigating whether we’ll have the ability to safely do some outdoor activities in the spirit of the holiday,” she said. “We hope to be able to do an outdoor art project around tashlich [the ceremonial tossing of sins], helping students reflect on what they’d like to let go of for the year to come.”

In Fairfax, George Mason University Chabad has been doing “Shabbat-in-a-box,” in which it gives students a box containing Shabbat food, items and instructions. Before Shabbat starts, students talk, sing and share stories over Zoom. Rabbi Mendel Deitsch of Mason Chabad said they could do the same for Rosh Hashanah, but he hopes they can get together in person.

“Depending where things are, we’re looking into putting up a tent on our property and being able to host socially distant outdoor services and meals,” Deitsch said.

He says what they decide to do is also up to the students.

Amelia Stork, the president of George Mason University Chabad and a senior dance major said, “The idea of services not happening dampens the spirit, even though I know it would be safest. Possibly having services outside and at limited attendance would be best case scenario and bring that necessary human connection.”

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