The last days of summer are a time for fresh starts: a new semester, a new season and a New Year for Cornell’s Jewish communities. Students celebrated Rosh Hashanah from the evening of Sept. 6 though Sept. 8 with services, meals and gatherings — all slightly modified to fit the ongoing pandemic, but much closer to tradition than last year’s.
“I wasn’t allowed on campus for close to 500 days because of COVID-19,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of Cornell Hillel. “It was just great to be able to celebrate again with a large community.”
Rosh Hashanah occurs annually as part of the Jewish High Holy Days or Yamim Noraim (“Days of Awe”). Jewish people put the old year to rest and celebrate new beginnings with a variety of traditions, including communal meals and the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn carved into an instrument. This Rosh Hashanah marked the year 5782 in the Jewish calendar.
“[The High Holidays] serve as the focal point of the year, where people come together,” Weiss said.
Sophia Bergen ’23, co-gabbai at Cornell’s Shevach prayer community, said that Rosh Hashanah evokes comfort and holiday joy.
“The holidays are always full of tradition,” she said. “For me in particular, they’re about being with my family, the smells of challah and even new dresses for services.”
Cornell’s Jewish organizations, especially Cornell Hillel and the Roitman Chabad Center, hosted a variety of holiday events on and off campus. The Chabad Center hosted shofar blowings at multiple times across campus. Cornell Hillel planned three different services for Jewish celebrants in progressive, conservative and orthodox denominations, and it hosted its yearly first-night dinner in large tents on the Arts Quad.
Adam Feldman ’22, Cornell Hillel chair of communications, explained that event planners had to pivot at the last minute to accommodate the new yellow alert restrictions. The first-night dinner ordinarily takes place in Trillium Dining Hall, where other Cornell Hillel meals have operated this semester.
“We have had Shabbat dinners that are weekly dinners on Friday nights inside Trillium, because that counts under Cornell’s rules as a well-ventilated area,” Feldman said. “We’ve had a bunch of freshmen, I’d say about 80 people or so the first couple weeks.”
With the University’s change in safety protocols, Cornell Hillel planned to move their Rosh Hashanah dinner outside in collaboration with Cornell Dining less than two weeks before the event. They set up tents, tables, chairs and lights on the Arts Quad. According to Weiss, each tent could hold 220 diners, and nearly 450 people showed up to celebrate.
Rabbi Hayley Goldstein, co-leader of the Hillel initiative Base Ithaca, expressed her happiness at seeing such a large turnout for the first Rosh Hashanah event this year.
“They had to set up picnic blankets outside of the tents because they were so full,” she said, “and it was just such an amazing feeling that so many people really wanted to be there and connect to this new year.”
Into the next days of Rosh Hashanah, student turnout for other events was larger than expected. Goldstein led the progressive service in the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room, inspiring reflection through music with her partner and Base co-leader Lizzie Sivitz and other local musicians.
According to Goldstein, 40 guests attended her Zoom service last year. This year, more than 100 turned up, outnumbering chairs and prayer books two to one.
“We ended up having 107 people trying to get a seat,” Goldstein said. “It was incredible.”
Goldstein also observed high student enthusiasm for engaging in spiritual exploration. She led the Amidah, a praise prayer that involves silent meditation, and appreciated students’ willingness to engage.
“I invited people, if they felt called, to go and stand on the balcony outside of the Memorial Room and connect to nature and talk to God in their own language,” she said. “In the past, I’d say Cornell students were a little resistant to trying things out of the box spiritually. But there really was a mass exodus to the porch.”
Shevach planned the conservative services outside Sage Hall. According to Bergen, 50 to 75 people attended — a surprisingly high turnout, she said.
“I wanted to create those spaces for people that fostered community,” Bergen said. “And I think having those very full services definitely accomplished that.”
Students expressed their gratitude for the in-person celebrations this year, citing their appreciation for community above any other factor.
“To come to a school where there’s such a prominent Jewish presence and then not be able to celebrate that over the past year was very difficult,” Feldman said, noting Cornell’s large population of Jewish students as compared to other schools.
Samantha Noland ’21 attended a variety of events this year, from the dinner on Monday to the Center for Jewish Living’s Beebe Lake Tashlich ceremony, where Jewish people cast bread into water to symbolically cast off sins.
Noland enjoyed connecting with other Jewish students, saying she found it more difficult last year with Zoom and distanced events. Even though the celebrations this year unfolded in person, she noted the struggles of celebrating Jewish holidays on a college campus even without a pandemic. She missed her parents and skipped classes to celebrate.
She expressed that her professors are ordinarily understanding, but she thinks it would be helpful if Cornell gave students the holidays off. She noted that nearby colleges, like Binghamton University, get a half-week break for Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah.
Bergen noted that Cornell doesn’t pause to acknowledge the holiday.
“I’ve experienced a lot of people not knowing about the holiday, particularly in classes and extracurriculars,” Bergen said. “Everyone just treats it like it’s a normal day. And the analogy I try to make is that this is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas and Easter.”
The second part of the High Holidays, Yom Kippur, will take place over Sept. 15 and 16. Cornell Hillel will host another outdoor meal and organize three different denominational services.
“We expect a similar, if not even bigger, turnout this time around,” Feldman said.
Hillel is also planning a CTB bagel drop-off for first-year students to break their Yom Kippur fast with a traditional Jewish meal. Weiss explained that although bagels and lox have no religious significance, they hold strong cultural associations that are comforting for Jewish students on Yom Kippur. Students can also apply for microgrants through Hillel Across Cornell to host their own meals.
Base Ithaca plans to host more in-person events for Yom Kippur and beyond. Goldstein said they will update students through the Base Ithaca Instagram on how events might change to respond to variable COVID conditions.
“While the weather is tolerable,” she said, “we’ll be outside and doing bigger Shabbat meals and different events like that while we can.”
In the New Year, Jewish Cornellians are striving for community and rebirth as Cornell’s campus bursts with energy once again.
“I’m trying to go into the new year and start fresh with friendships and relationships, making sure that I’m really being my full, authentic self,” Noland said.
Goldstein and Weiss both expressed their dedication to focus on community in the upcoming year through mindset and event planning. Feldman noted that Cornell Hillel prioritizes this over all else.
“If you ask us what our one-line mission statement is, it’s to bring people together,” Feldman said.
Weiss expressed his optimism for what the future holds.
“I know we’re still in this moment of uncertainty and this moment of anxiety,” Weiss said. “But this year, hopefully, will be a year full of blessings and joy.”