Turning

This week marked the beginning of the High Holiday season for Jews, and for Muslims the beginning of Ramadan. Over the last few years I had grown close to a group of people at my schul in Berkeley (the minyan at Temple Beth El), and I wondered how I would feel this time of year in a new town. I’d met the wonderfully energetic rabbi, David Leipziger, but what would the community be like?

Although my brother and his family live within driving distance in New York, I decided to attend the services at Wesleyan this year. I thought it would be a good way to see how some of our students celebrated the Jewish holidays. It was a lovely experience. I understand from various people that religious (or spiritual) practices of various sorts now play a more important part on campus than they did, for example, when I was a student in the 1970s. It is worth being reminded that students at Wesleyan don’t conform to any rigid stereotypes, except perhaps that they are questioning, searching people. Some of them search through religious practices. Some, through a critique of those practices. Some even do both!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrations were thoughtful, musical, welcoming. I found them very moving. I even got to carry the Torah around our makeshift schul (long ago a gym!), in the tradition that allows congregants to reach out and touch the scroll with a gesture that combines respect and affection. At this time of year, we ask to turn ourselves towards a more meaningful life, and also towards our “best selves” — who we really are and who we want to become. In the Jewish tradition these days of “turning” are called the Days of Awe.

Yesterday, the rabbi asked Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Wesleyan Muslim chaplain, to join him for the sermon. Since Ramadan has just begun, he explained that his voice might be weaker than usual, since he had not eaten or had water since sunrise. In fact, he spoke quietly and powerfully about his traditions. It was a new year’s gift. It was also a “teaching moment,” time for us to think about how our practices overlap, how they differ, how we can learn from one another. Perhaps Sohaib was “turning,” too.

In a community that so values innovation and experimentation, it is also good to find our traditions thoughtfully explored and thus preserved.

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5 thoughts on “Turning

  1. Mr. Roth,

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the way that you participate in the events at the school. As a freshman here it is nice to feel like we have an approachable president who cares both about the school in general, but also about connecting with the student community here.

    Thank you,
    -Donovan Arthen ’11

  2. Thanks for taking an active participation in campus events and for immersing yourself in the campus community. From reading Wesleying to attending various student-oriented events, it really shows you care, and is much appreciated.

    The religious communities at Wesleyan are one of the things I love most about the school. I’ve been a fairly active member of the Jewish community in the past, and have grown to love the community we’ve built up. I’d like to emphasize the student-run nature of it – with the Rabbi’s guidance, students meet weekly in Havurah sessions to plan everything that goes on in the community. This leads to a lot of innovative ways of interpreting old traditions that speak to the Wesleyan student body in particular. Additionally, I’ve found the religious communities at Wesleyan to be extremely welcoming to everyone from all sorts of backgrounds – I’ve brought non-Jewish friends to Friday night Shabbat services countless times, and feel just as welcome in the services that other religious communities hold. The interfaith nature of religion at Wesleyan is also especially encouraging.

    Going abroad this semester (to Hungary) has made me realize just how unique the religious atmosphere at Wesleyan really is. I hope you enjoy it while you’re there! I look forward to coming back in the spring to a Wesleyan with you as its President. 🙂

    Madeline Weiss ’09

  3. President Roth,

    I was deeply moved as you circulated among the congregation with the Torah, extending it to everyone so that they could touch it and be touched by it. The broad smiles on so many faces expressed the sense of affirmation I think so many were feeling.

    Jeremy Zwelling

  4. President Roth:

    First and foremost I want to commend you on being a prolific blogger. It is a helpful tool in increasing your visibility to alumni who are geographically removed from Middletown.

    That being said, I wanted to address the subject matter you bring up in this posting. As a past member of the Wes MSA (Muslim Students Association) I saw first hand the great premium the university placed on spirituality and faith. We were one of the pioneering institutions in America because of our funding of a Muslim Chaplain position in 2003. Many schools are now following in that direction to increase understanding of Islam and to ensure that safe spaces for practice are available.

    I want to personally thank you for continuing the Wesleyan tradition of learning by speaking directly to Imam Sohaib in your blog. Sohaib is an incredible asset to Wesleyan with his astoundingly large knowledge bank and scholarship (referenced by the fact that he has already written two books at the age of 25). I recommend meeting with him and the Wesleyan Muslim community to learn more about its rich history and great activism. Keep up the great work!

    -Saad Handoo ’06

  5. President Roth,

    I graduated Wesleyan 18 years ago (!!). I am now an observant Jew. Back then I wasn’t, although the High Holidays were meaningful to me. I keenly recall asking a professor if I could reschedule an exam which was held on Rosh Hashanah. He said no, and I took the exam on Rosh Hashanah.

    I hope Wesleyan’s policies have changed, or that there is a policy in place that is sensitive to these issues of freedom of religious practice.

    Kol Tuv,

    Devorah Blumberg ’90

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