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IU Hillel holds religious services for High Holy Days amid COVID-19 pandemic 



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Helene G. Simon Hillel Center is seen May 12, 2008. IDS file photo

IU Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, has modified its services for the Jewish High Holy Days to adhere to COVID-19 regulations. 

The Jewish High Holy Days began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, on Sept. 18 before sundown to Sept. 20 after nightfall, and ends with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, on Sept. 27 before sundown to Sept. 28 after nightfall. Because of COVID-19, IU Hillel halted indoor programming and conducts all in-person gatherings outside on their front lawn or back parking lot. 

Hillel requires a COVID-19 symptom screening, masks and social distancing for every in-person event and implements a reservation policy to limit attendance to 25 students. 

For High Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hillel requested special permission from the university to allow in-person attendance for up to 50 students. All events are either livestreamed or offered separately through a virtual program, and more time slots for in-person services are offered to accommodate student demand. 

IU Hillel executive director Rabbi Sue Silberberg said Hillel saw maximum attendance for Rosh Hashanah last weekend, with between 300 and 500 students in attendance across in-person services. She also said the limited attendance has allowed them to be as safe as possible while maintaining commitment to religious ideologies. 

“In Judaism, the most sacred and most important value is what we call pikuach nefesh, and that means saving a life, and you can set aside almost every other Jewish law in order to save a life,” she said. “We really wanted to balance that need for community with the overarching principle of being safe and saving lives.”

Silberberg also said the biggest learning curve has been adjusting to technological needs to accommodate each service. She said although it’s been tough, now that they know what technology works, they will be able to implement it more effectively in the future. 

“I just want to make sure that we keep committing to having really meaningful services and meaningful programs and still be there for our students,” she said.

Jess Goldblatt is the assistant director for IU Hillel. He said because technology is typically something more religious circles stay away from on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, navigating remote services has seen both success and cause for concern among students. 

“We made a decision to stream our services, which is pretty unorthodox for us to do that,” he said. “Some people will interpret that as an innovative way to reach more people and a more inclusive way to include people who are unable or are uncomfortable being in person because of the pandemic, and other students, that may serve as a roadblock because of their religious interpretation.”

Goldblatt said the most important concern for Hillel is their ability to accommodate as many students as possible as the pandemic continues. 

“Our mission is to create the Jewish home away from home, and we work tirelessly to ensure that our students feel comfortable and their needs are being met,” he said.

Yom Kippur begins before sundown on Sunday and continues onto Monday until after nightfall. Students can reserve a spot for in-person services on the IU Hillel website

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