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Thanksgiving Reflection: Serving During the Days of Awe

by Lisa Motenko |Nov 21, 2012|Comments
As Thanksgiving approaches in the U.S., we reflect on how Hillel students have given back to their communities. Guest blogger Lisa Motenko is the Program Director at Berkeley Hillel. Here, Lisa shares how Berkeley Hillel students spent the Days of Awe in service.

Student Volunteers from Berkeley Hillel.

Last year, Berkeley Hillel decided to challenge our students to think beyond the conventional. It started with a thought: what would it be like to serve others on the holiest day of the year? Yes, you read that correctly. What would it be like to make the bold statement: service is an imperative? It's a holy way to observe Yom Kippur on par with attending traditional Yom Kippur services. So last year, on Yom Kippur morning, ten students and I woke up early, skipped breakfast, and hopped on the train to San Francisco.

At St. Anthony's, an organization committed to providing the poor of San Francisco with basic needs and services as a gateway to reclaiming their sense of dignity, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, we served 2,000 meals to people for whom hunger is a daily reality. While we served, we had the opportunity to talk to clients and exchange stories. We chatted with people who had been in jail and struggled with addiction, and people who went to college just like us. I found myself wanting to claim my Jewish identity and explain that we were serving on this holiday because gemilut chasidim, or acts of loving kindness, are a fundamental value in Jewish thought. Many students considered the day to be the most meaningful Yom Kippur they had ever experienced, and some have gone on to become regular volunteers at St. Anthony's.

This year, we wanted to be even bolder and asked - What if, as a collective Jewish community, we volunteered every day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Community service did not yet have its place among the plethora of Jewish experiences that Berkeley Hillel offered during the Days of Awe- so this was going to be a shift. I am always up for a challenge though, especially if it involves more students repairing the world. And we did it! As a community, over 30 Jewish students worked both this year and last at the Berkeley Women's Shelter during these most holy days. We served meals, played with kids, and reflected on why volunteering is an important part of what it means to be Jewish.

Together we learned that serving others on these holy days is not just eye-opening and enriching, but it is actually demanded of us. In the Haftarah which is read every year on Yom Kippur, Isaiah begs us to stop going through the motions and fast a meaningful fast.

He cries:
"This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin."

I am proud to share that at Berkeley Hillel we took Isaiah's words to heart and attempted to do what he asks of us. I believe that this is just the first step, and that our commitment to serving others will grow. My sincerest hope is that in the future "service" and "holy day" will be synonymous.

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