Kedma pulls off Orthodox in-person services during High Holidays

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Kedma holds daily prayer services next to Mowatt Parking Garage. Photo courtesy of Doni Sausen.

By Ben Baruch
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

Although the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions made celebrating the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur difficult, members of this university’s Orthodox Jewish community made sure that social distancing wouldn’t get in the way of a meaningful holiday.

Sophomore chemistry major Scott Sandor is the gabbai, or religious service coordinator, of Kedma, the Orthodox community at this university. He played a large role in organizing Orthodox prayer services and said that this year required a lot of “coordination and communication” between the Orthodox community as well as the university faculty.  

Initially, this university banned religious gatherings during the two-week quarantine period at the start of the semester. But even once that period was over, Rabbi Ari Israel of Maryland Hillel wrote in an email to students that the university was continuing to prohibit prayer services. Community leaders therefore had to lobby the university to be permitted to have in-person Rosh Hashanah services.

Their hard work paid off. A total of 240 people showed up to Kedma’s Rosh Hashanah services this year, and a similar number of people attended for Yom Kippur, according to Sandor. He added that attendance numbers were fluctuating in the days leading up to each holiday due to coronavirus infections and exposures among students.

For comparison, Maryland Hillel was full during Yom Kippur services last year. Seating overflowed into the lobby, a phenomenon that long preceded the invention of the term “social distance.” Students were singing and dancing throughout the service.  

This year, three outdoor locations, Knight Hall, Mowatt Parking Garage and the Memorial Chapel, along with Maryland Hillel, were designated as prayer spaces. Services were socially distanced and shortened due to difficulties praying outdoors and with masks. Gabbais had to remind students not to dance because of this year’s social distance protocols.

Sophomore mechanical engineering major Jack Benveniste-Plitt, who was one of this year’s prayer leaders, said that it was hard to pray with a mask. Nevertheless, he described this Rosh Hashanah as a “memorable experience.”

Doni Sausen, a sophomore at Yeshiva University who is spending his semester living off-campus at this university, has already been impressed by the community’s commitment to Jewish life. 

“It’s evident that the community is just yearning for something greater than themselves … [the services] enabled my prayers to go from an imagination to reality,” he said.

Since Rosh Hashanah, Kedma has reinstated daily prayer services at Mowatt Garage and other outdoor locations across campus. Students must sign up in advance to attend, and masks and social distance practices are required.