rethink, reshape, rebuild

We’ll never do High Holidays the same again

The way we plan for the High Holidays at Hillel conflicts with how we manage other programs and holidays

The fitness tracking on my wrist buzzed as we cleaned up a whirlwind break-the-fast meal in our Hillel’s dining hall during Yom Kippur 2019. Over the course of the day, I had racked up 10,000 steps without ever leaving our two-story Hillel facility. I had spent much of the day bouncing between the various services offered, delivering divrei Torah and greeting our guests, and occasionally chatting with the group of students and community members in our front lobby who were hanging out and playing board games. 

Fast forward to Yom Kippur afternoon a year later, I found myself sitting on our Hillel’s patio deck on a neon green yoga mat amid a circle of students in cloth face masks and comfortable clothing as our assistant director took us through meditative stretching and breathing exercises, weaving in concepts of teshuvah and renewal. A group of students, some who might normally be turned off by the formality of the High Holidays, reflected on the past year and forgiveness beside me. The previous night, I had sat on my living room couch, our laptop connected to our television, accessing diverse Kol Nidre experiences that our community in Austin could not provide on its own. We first watched our student leaders greet their peers tuning in from around the world and listened to a blend of Sephardic, Ashkenazi and contemporary voices. Switching to the service from my family’s synagogue in Washington, D.C., I was immediately reconnected to my late grandparents and the special moments we had shared together in that sanctuary. 

I have long felt that much of the way we plan for the High Holidays at Hillel conflicts with how we manage other programs and holidays. The High Holidays, with their complicated and at times unfamiliar liturgy, their position right at the start of the academic year, and the way that they attract many people who are not engaged with Hillel throughout the year, present some specific challenges and opportunities. Hillel otherwise prides itself on being student-driven, transcending denominational boundaries and developing creative ways to build connections among different students. Hillel professionals across the country are masterful at creating experiences that meet the needs of their community in the moment, evolving and changing with students’ interests. 

The reality is the pandemic was a powerful disruption of how we brought the High Holidays to our students and community. Like much of our programming this year, our High Holiday programming centered around small groups, one-on-one experiences, and leveraging technology in new ways. As a result, we saw first-time participants who were not previously engaging with what we were offering. Building back the High Holidays post-pandemic means remembering those folks too and taking a moment to absorb what we learned in 2020 and apply it to further enhance 2021 and beyond. Specifically, how might we include “at-home” elements to go along with communal gatherings in our Hillel facility? Our alternative 2020 experience gave students the opportunity to connect with the High Holidays through movement, virtual experiences, and meals hosted in their own spaces. While we are eager for the return of big, communal experiences and for our students to feel the connection that comes from celebrating these significant days on a large campus, we are also eager to experiment with how we can continue to support at-home or off-site intimate meals for groups who might not want to be in a crowded dining hall. While, for many years, we have integrated discussions and alternative service options into our schedule, moving forward we will think more about how we can leverage outdoor, small-group experiences like yoga and meditation, to connect with the themes of the season. 

We might still bring in visiting rabbis or rabbinical students to lead services. But we should also ask how can we use technology to engage more students in the process earlier and invite them to shape the experiences. For students who relished the opportunity to join their family from a distance this year and maintain a connection to their childhood High Holiday experience, how can we blend that desire with providing students an outlet on campus to create new traditions? 

We are eager to assemble students in focus groups later this spring and early summer to explore what High Holidays might look like this fall at our Hillel. What is clear is that while we might dust off our machzorim and schedule templates from years past, our experience this past year has given us a platform to rethink, reshape, and rebuild what a Hillel High Holiday experience could be. In-person or virtual, kinesthetic or contemplative, at-home or in-building, huge crowds or an intimate circle of peers, national and global connections or local friendships – we have a fresh slate to assemble a menu of options that takes our lessons learned from the pandemic year and blends them with our Hillel values to create deep and meaningful Jewish experiences as we hear the shofar blasts and welcome in yet another new year.  

Maiya Edelson is the executive director of Texas Hillel.