Power Prayers



June 8, 2016

(A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Hillel College Guide magazine.)

David Coyne, director of Hillel at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., had been leading weekly Shabbat services for years.

“Then I said to the students, ‘I’m not a rabbi. I’m an attorney. You’re perfectly able to lead the service.’ Now they own it.”

That was 18 years ago. Clark, with its undergraduate population of 2,300, has “a larger-than-expected Jewish population” of 350 to 400, Coyne says. On any given Friday night, 20 will attend one of two egalitarian services — one liberal leaning, the other more traditional.

“We have given them full ownership of their Jewish observance, allowing them to preserve those traditions that speak to them and to experiment with new elements that have resonance,” Coyne explains. “In so doing, we have helped to nurture Jewish leaders who will actively lead in the synagogue and chavurah and in the wider world.”

Some might picture spiritual life at Hillel to be a top-down world in which a rabbi leads, while students merely participate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take Clark, for example, where students organize and lead services. These students say that taking leadership roles provides them with a sense of community and helps them develop their Jewish identity.

At Clark, the students even use DIY prayer books — kept in loose-leaf binders so pages can be added and removed as student needs change. Coyne says the prayer books help students avoid labels and give them a larger spiritual say.

“We said, ‘Let’s not use denominational names, and everyone will feel like it’s Hillel’s prayer book.’ ”

At the University of Missouri, in Columbia, Jewish students display their individuality even while acknowledging denominational labels. 

Columbia is only two hours from St. Louis, with its large and active Jewish population. But when Thalia Sass, 21, began attending Mizzou, it seemed like another world. At home in St. Louis, Sass, now a senior, didn’t have to belong to be part of the Jewish environment.

By contrast, “Mizzou is less than 2 percent Jewish,” she says. “So Hillel became my Jewish connection.”

This is her second year as president of Hillel’s Jewish Student Organization, and she is one of the leaders of Jewish-led Shabbat services.

“They’re mostly Reform with some Conservative elements,” she says. “That’s the background of most students.”

Students generally use the Conservative Sim Shalom prayer book. But it’s in the student-initiated theme of the service where participants inject the most self-expression.

“There was Israel Shabbat, Camp Shabbat and Solidarity Shabbat — because of how much unrest there was on campus,” says Mizzou sophomore Paul Kodner, 19, who leads services with his twin brother, Jordan. (Last fall, protests against racism led to the resignations of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of the Columbia campus.)

And then there was the Harry Potter-themed service. “There were Dumbledore quotes, and the d’var Torah had links to Harry Potter,” says Sass.

“When I came to college, Jewish leadership wasn’t on my radar,” says Sass, who grew up in a Reform family. “But going from a very Jewish town to one with few Jews, I needed the connection.” The ability to plan and lead services and programs “has allowed me to grow as a young Jewish adult.”

Kodner grew up in a Conservative family and was involved in Orthodox activities in high school. Last year, he and his brother launched a monthly Conservative Shabbat morning service, which they lead.

“My beliefs haven’t changed,” he says of his university experience, “but my sense of community has changed. In St. Louis, our community was always around us. Here, you have to make your connections. I did this on my own. I didn’t inherit it from my parents.”

Recognizing that for many Jews of Sephardic ancestry, spirituality is initimately connected to their culture, at Queens College in New York, the Hillel is creating student leaders to engage those not represented in the predominant American Ashkenazi culture. Of the school’s 4,000 Jewish students, at least 1,500 are of Sephardic or Mizrachi descent — whose families came from North Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia, says Ruben Shimonov, Queens Hillel’s cross-community engagement coordinator.

There are 1,000 Bukharian Jews alone, students who trace their ancestry to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They and the other Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews don’t connect culturally or religiously with the school’s Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe and who are primarily Orthodox.

So Hillel’s Bukharian Student Leaders Development Fellowship enlists 14 students for monthly meetings. “They’re learning about history, about issues that are pertinent to them,” according to Shimonov. And Choikhona (teahouse) lunches serve as a platform for discussions about Bukharian identity, community and culture.

Shimonov points to these and other efforts as bringing Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews into greater participation, thereby weaving their cultural heritage into a richer Jewish life on campus.

“We’re mixing it up,” he says.

Student-led services at the University of Arizona in Tucson have a Reform and a Conservative option. Bridget Ott, a 19-year-old sophomore from Phoenix, attends the Reform service. Prayers are accompanied by guitar and it’s “very relaxed.”

Some 30 to 40 students attend one of two services. “We light candles, split for services and come back together for dinner,” Ott says.

In January, Ott was one of 10 Arizona students to venture to rival Arizona State University in Tempe for the Limmud AZ day of Jewish learning. The program, open to Jews of all ages and backgrounds, included sessions such as, “What if Everything Really was Better Then?” “Yoga Meets Dance with Hebrew Music” and “Shimmering Hamsas.”

The day was part of Ott’s ongoing Jewish exploration. “It helped me establish my Jewish identity,” she explains. “I grew up in a secular household,” and her contact with Jewish religion and culture at Arizona is helping her “to find my place in Judaism.”

For Thalia Sass, at the University of Missouri, whichever approach a campus takes, the result will be rewarding.

“There’s value in a service led by a rabbi and one led by a college student,” she says. “I think we can all learn from these experiences.”