By Sherri Richards
With pomegranates, dates, Hershey Kisses and challah bread spread before them, Jewish students and professors from North Dakota State University dipped apple slices into honey to represent a "sweet" new year on the second day of Rosh Hashana on Sept. 16.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is the start of the High Holidays, 10 days of reflection that conclude with Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. During Yom Kippur, Jews worship and abstain from food and drink.
Tonight, these NDSU students and staff, a religious minority on the Fargo campus, can break their fast together.
They found each other thanks to 22-year-old Biana Shilshtut.
Last fall, Shilshtut, a graduate student in mathematics, organized a chapter of Hillel at NDSU.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.
In August, she received an international award from the organization for her leadership.
Hillel was founded in the United States in the 1920s to engage uninvolved Jewish students on their own terms.
Shilshtut, who is from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, describes its mission as "maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews."
Barry Effron, who sits on Hillel's International Board, uses Shilshtut as an example when speaking to other student leaders.
"With all the pressures students have, here's a graduate student who comes halfway around the world and says, 'OK, I'll make a life for myself and others where there is none,' " Effron says.
Finding each other
Shilshtut was a Hillel leader in Uzbekistan, a primarily Muslim nation still adjusting to its newfound religious freedom.
While she was a minority in her faith there, she felt like the lone Jew at NDSU her first semester in spring 2003.
Then, last fall, she sent an e-mail to students and faculty, wishing them a happy Rosh Hashana.
To her surprise, she received a handful of e-mails back. They were from other Jewish students, who felt like they were the only ones on campus, too.
About 10 students were active in NDSU's Hillel last year. A few have graduated, but Shilshtut hopes students from Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College may become involved.
For Rosh Hashana this year, 11 people gathered at the home of Wendy Troop, an assistant professor of psychology and adviser for Hillel.
There happens to be a pond behind her south Fargo townhouse, so the group tossed bread crumbs into the water, a concrete expression of "Tashlich," casting away their sins.
Ducks eagerly ate them up.
They recited the Kiddush - a prayer recited at the beginning of a festive meal - holding glasses of grape juice instead of wine, because it's a campus organization.
They dined on gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish dish, and not-so-traditional hamburgers.
Troop was involved with Hillel at the University of Michigan. The organization was large, as are many Hillels.
But NDSU's small Jewish population isn't a shortcoming for its chapter.
"It's because we're so small, that there aren't many Jewish students, that we need an organization," Troop says.
Max Besner drifted away from his Jewish heritage his first two years at NDSU.
"When I got up here at first it was a little bit of a culture shock because I was used to being surrounded by Jewish culture," Besner says. He grew up in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Now, he's learning more about his faith than ever before.
Steven Dais was raised with a Christian background, but was always interested in Judaism, and Hillel is satisfying his curiosity.
"It has a good sense of community. I think it's a good outreach to educate the community about Judaism," Dais says.
For example, Shilshtut handed out typed sheets of questions and answers regarding Rosh Hashana, explaining its meanings and rituals.
She organizes Shabbat dinners and Passover seders. She hopes Hillel will take on more philanthropy projects this year, and team with other student organizations.
Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel International, says Hillel officials were concerned when they heard Shilshtut was moving to Fargo.
They worried she would have little contact with other Jews and lose the Jewish identity she had found.
She proved them wrong, and brought Hillel to a place they never imagined it could exist.
"She has been a catalyst, in many ways, to help energize the small university community," Rubin says. "Many students wouldn't have had the chutzpa, the nerve, the courage, to do that.
"We've just been watching in amazement."
Reprinted with permission from The Forum in Fargo, N.D. This story originally appeared in the Sept. 25 edition.