Hillel adjusts prayer service options amid university coronavirus regulations

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Ometz’s first Zoom Shabbat service was a success, but nobody knows what their High Holiday turnout will look like. Photo by Ometz.

By Char Freedberg
News editor
@CfreeOfficial

With the coronavirus lingering and changing this university in many ways, this university’s Hillel still grapples with the question that students are asking themselves: how will Jewish prayer services be handled this year?

The High Holidays are rapidly approaching, so this question seems timelier than ever. The three denominational groups at Hillel, Kedma (Orthodox), Ometz (traditional Egalitarian) and Ruach (Reform), have different ideas of how to solve this problem with varying degrees of success and support. 

As of right now, Ometz is going to have Kabbalat Shabbat over Zoom. Ideally, after September 14th, we would like to have in-person socially distanced Friday night services. Everything is up in the air, however, so it is difficult to have any concrete plans,” said Hannah Freeman, a junior studio art major and one of the Ometz coordinators.

Ometz’s High Holiday services will be hosted in person, but other than that, there has been no further information regarding how social distancing will be observed or how people will stay safe while still observing the holidays, she said.

While online services are the safer option given the situation, Freeman understands that some students are frustrated because they cannot see each other in person.

“I think that a lot of students are disappointed by the fact that we can’t have our regular services and events. Some are okay with in-person services with health and safety precautions in place, while some don’t and won’t come to services,” she said.

Ruach is taking a more positive and relaxed approach to the Coronavirus and its restrictions.

“Ruach will be holding Shabbat services virtually throughout the entire fall semester. Since the Reform sect is flexible enough to allow for this, we are excited by the opportunity to see many new faces on Friday nights who might not have shown up if we held services in person!” Ariel Goldstein, a senior majoring in Criminology and Criminal Justice and one of the Ruach coordinators, said.

While Ruach will not host High Holiday services in person or on Zoom as they would with their regular Shabbat services, they are giving students three options to observe the Holidays.

The first is “Higher Holy Days,” hosted by Hillel International, which students can sign up for virtually. The second is allowing students to attend services at the synagogue where they are currently members or are the most comfortable being in. The last option offers students the opportunity to participate for free in nearby Temple Shalom’s online services. 

“Ruach is holding steady in our belief that the most important element of this semester is everyone’s safety. Due to this, 95% of our programming will be held virtually,” Goldstein said.

According to Daniella Bloch, a junior public health science major and one of Kedma’s religious leaders, Kedma services will take place outdoors in various places around campus. Only 50 people will be able to sign up, and participants must social distance and wear masks.

In general, some prayers will be cut out to help move services along faster, but there will be more Shabbat services because more people usually attend, according to Bloch. She added that High Holiday services will have the same sort of structure as regular Shabbat services.

“Obviously, we’re going to need to have a lot more different groups of services being run,” Bloch said.

She explained that for certain parts of the service, three or four sessions would be run concurrently to ensure that everyone gets the same religious experience.

Kedma still checks this university’s policies on religious gatherings to ensure that they are following the necessary guidelines but also knows that many students will be home for the Holidays rather than on campus.

“There’s really no way of predicting [what the university will enact]; it’s just going with the flow and seeing what happens,” Bloch said. She also wants services to be held, but she wants them in the “most normal but safe way possible.”

Eitan Hoffman, a senior biology major involved in Kedma, hopes that Kedma will host in-person services soon.

“I expect the, so called, ‘safety measures’ the UMD Jewish community leadership is imposing will decrease. If they don’t, I’d expect the amount of people following them will decrease,” he said.

Other Kedma students are critical of these mandates as well. One student in particular shared his concerns about the situations and the spiritual obligations of prayer.

“Our davening (prayer) is not a social gathering. It should not be lumped in with the parties that the school is trying to avoid. Rather, it is our obligation to pray with a quorum,” sophomore Jack Benveniste-Plitt said on Kedma’s Facebook group. 

He declined to be interviewed, but his post sparked a heated debate in the group among Kedma members who support the decision to refrain from holding services. However, Benveniste-Plitt maintained his stance.

“Being able to attend daily minyan is a fundamental part of our religion and religious obligation,” he wrote.