The Jewish High Holy Days at MSU, explained
Starting Wednesday evening, Jewish students and faculty at MSU will begin their yearly celebration of the Jewish High Holy Days, involving food, prayer, song and the blowing of a ceremonial ram's horn.
For Jewish people, the twin holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of celebration, reflection and atonement. But for non-Jewish students who might be confused as to what their Jewish friends mean when they say “Shanah tovah” or stop eating for a day, here’s an explainer.
Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year.
“Unlike the secular new year where it’s usually all about partying, the Jewish new year is really a time for introspection and thinking about what we want to do better in this new year,” Rebecca Walker said.
Walker is a senior Jewish educator for MSU’s branch of Hillel – an international organization of Jewish community centers on college campuses.
“For Rosh Hashanah, one of the big things is that we blow the shofar, which is a ram’s horn,” Walker said. “It makes a nice sound. Another name for Rosh Hashanah is basically the ‘day of the shofar’ in Hebrew.”
The shofar is blown in recognition of the new year.
"(It's) acknowledging that sometimes we live our lives almost like we’re asleep," Walker said. "So it’s like ‘okay, wake up, pay attention, what do we want to be doing with our lives?’"
Rosh Hashanah lasts two days. This year, it begins at sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 20 and ends at sundown on Friday, Sept. 22.
Yom Kippur takes place ten days after Rosh Hashanah, beginning at sundown on Friday, Sept. 29 and ending at sunset the next day. For those 24 hours, Jewish adults over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah are expected to fast.
“Yom Kippur is known as the 'Day of Atonement,’ and it’s about realizing what we’ve done wrong in the past year and making amends for it,” Walker said. “Yom Kippur is the day we use to really say we’re sorry and get ready to come out with a fresh slate for the new year, ready to go.”
Typically, Jewish people greet each other on Rosh Hashanah by saying “shanah tovah,” which means “have a good year.” A usual Yom Kippur greeting is “g’mar chatimah tovah," or simply "g'mar tov."
“It’s bonus points if you remember that one,” Walker said.
MSU Hillel, located at 360 Charles St. near downtown East Lansing, organizes many events for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“There are services for the early morning, as well as dinner that night, and after the holiday ends at sundown there’s services and dinner,” says Ashley Schnaar, president of MSU’s Jewish Student Union.
The High Holy Days are usually spent with family – at synagogue, eating together, praying together – and Hillel tries to replicate that sense of community here on campus. Schnaar, a senior, says that when she first arrived on campus, Hillel had exactly what she was looking for.
“I was very involved in my Jewish community at home, and so I was looking for a strong Jewish community at Michigan State, where we’re definitely more the minority,” Schnaar said. “I was so happy to find MSU Hillel because they have so many extensive programming opportunities and supporting staff that help us plan events and even have a rabbi that leads services.”
Most Jewish students at MSU are part of either the Conservative or Reform movements, two different branches of modern American Judaism. Walker, who organizes and leads the Hillel’s services for each of the holidays, says that she tries to make the services familiar to everyone who attends regardless of background.
“We have services all together, so that means that the students who grew up Conservative might see more english than they’re used to or there might be things they’re used to doing that we aren’t doing,” says Walker. “Students who grow up Reform might see different prayers than they’re used to. But really when I put them together, I try to make it a compromise. Everyone feels a little uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable, but I try to hit all of the bases.”
The Hillel’s events aren’t just limited to religious services.
“There are also more social events surrounding the holidays, which typically go over better with college students that aren't that religious," Schnaar said. "So, we had a caramel apple making event the other night, because it's traditional that apples and honey are eaten to represent a sweet new year.”
Walker will also be leading an event called tashlich this coming Sunday.
“It’s part of this whole process from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, thinking about what we want to do better," explains Walker. "So it’s this ritual where you cast off your sins. So, you think about the things you want to let go of and you go to a river or a lake and you throw them away metaphorically. We’re actually doing an event for that on kayaks, so that will be fun.”
MSU students who observe the High Holy Days and need to be excused from class can reference the MSU Policy on Religious Observance:
“The faculty and staff should be sensitive to the observance of these holidays so that students who absent themselves from classes on these days are not seriously disadvantaged. It is the responsibility of those students who wish to be absent to make arrangements in advance with their instructors. It is also the responsibility of those faculty who wish to be absent to make arrangements in advance with their chairpersons, who shall assume the responsibility for covering their classes.”
MSU Hillel also provides a letter for students to show their professors that outlines the significance of the holidays and the university’s responsibilities.
Information on MSU Hillel’s holiday events can be found on their website.