Yom Kippur at College

Is such the fast that I desire: a day for people to starve their bodies? . . . Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

Despite the call of these very words from the haftarah (the selected reading from the books of the prophets) for Yom Kippur morning, many Jewish students on college campuses this year seem to have taken the day as just such: a day to starve their bodies.

This year it seems that such was the fast:

  • to walk across campus with pangs of hunger in your stomach?
  • to sit in class with caffeine-withdrawal headaches so distracting you learn nothing?
  • to sleep as much as possible to reduce the waking hours ’til the day ends?
  • to stop by prayer services when you get a chance?

          While some students’ observances were nothing close to the above, the anecdotal reporting of multiple rabbis on college campuses this year was one of grave concern that prayer services are indeed last on the list.  Another year, we might have chalked up the low turnout to the nearness of the day to a weekend, allowing students to travel home.  This year, we have no such excuse.  Students are observing Yom Kippur, if at all, not in the communal setting of prayer.

Without belaboring the drama of recent studies like the Pew Forum’s “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Americans increasingly experience religious life in personal, not institutional ways. Rather than lament this situation, I wonder what we might learn and do for next year and the years to come.  Because for now, apparently, YES, such is the fast.

Conversation on Delaware’s Green, Yom Kippur 2009

One of the great lessons of working in Hillel is the insistence on using “yes, and . . . ,” rather than “but.”  If indeed fewer and fewer students (and, likely, American Jews generally) are observing their fast in communal prayer settings, what is the meaning of their fast?  Yes, Jews are still fasting, and . . . what?

I propose three ways forward:

  1. We must think more about the meal before and the break fast after.  Ritual dining related to Yom Kippur is more crucial for meaning-making than we have explored.
  2. We must understand fasting on campus or at work as a form of soul-affliction.  Even divorced from the prayers of penitence, going without food or drink amidst one’s non-Jewish companions is an uncomfortable admission of difference.
  3. We must do more to make the meaning of the prayers accessible to everyone.  Explanations of particular liturgical passages or Scriptural readings can have great impact, if we get them beyond the confines of deviations from their prayed settings.

I would start with correcting the translation in many mahzorim (high holy day prayer books) and in the NJPS editions of the Bible:  “a day for people to starve their bodies” is better translated as “a day for human soul-affliction.”  Doing so contextualizes the meaning of standing apart.  By addressing the ways forward I suggested, we might get deeper into the meaning of the day to see how, for example, seeing oneself as if dead changes how we see ourselves in the world. In that light, we can do more than stand out; we can act out for justice, for what we can fix in ourselves and in the world, and for what God really wants: “from your flesh you will not hide, . . . and your righteousness will walk before you” (Isaiah 58:7-8).


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