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.