This article appeared in the Sept. 26, 2008 Jewish Advocate.
Welcoming students to shul:
Area synagogues extend warm invites
By Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate
The Jewish people and the Boston area share a great emphasis on the value of educational opportunity. Boston’s outstanding colleges and universities are, indeed, often the reason that many young Jewish adults come here, and also, why they may choose to stay. Local synagogues are well aware of this, and, especially during the High Holiday season, reach out warmly toward the student population. They may do this in different ways, and offer varied benefits, but the overall goal is to give young Jews a rewarding and fulfilling community experience that they will hopefully want to return to.
Synagogues that are near large schools tend to be more active in their outreach. But not necessarily. A spokesperson at Chabad House of Greater Boston said they don’t generally advertise. Students who daven and enjoy the holidays at the Kenmore Square location may be explicitly looking for a local Chabad, or have heard about the denomination’s all-inclusive, popular and entertaining, yet richly traditional programming.
Down the road, Boston University Hillel actively informs students about its High Holiday offerings. “We do this via large posters, flyers sent to dorms, letters sent out before the school year begins, and electronic media,” said Director Rabbi Avi Heller. “We also table in the student link (a B.U. online resource) and outside dining halls, and put out materials in Hillel and on its website.” While Hillel encourages students to go home if schedules and finances allow, “we want them to feel welcome to join us, which is why tickets are free and we offer Orthodox, Conservative and Reform services,” said Heller.
A welcome-back kickoff event precedes the High Holidays. “We also usually have one or two classes, like ‘Rosh Hashanah for Dummies’ or ‘A Review of the Laws of Shofar-Blowing’ before the holiday,” said Heller, who also noted their special Selichot service the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah, and their well-attended Tashlich service on the Charles. Services are held in Hillel, the student union ballroom, and an old synagogue otherwise now used as a lecture hall.
At the eastbound end of Storrow Drive, the Boston Synagogue offers discounted rates for students. Board Chair Susan Schreiner Weingarten said the warm and hospitable synagogue not only welcomes students year-round, but their parents as well. “We’ve found that parents often visit for both High Holidays, or just one,” she said. The Charles River Park synagogue is located in the heart of the former West End, which once teemed with Jewish immigrants.
Up Beacon Hill at 18 Phillips St., the Vilna Shul, which offers all High Holiday services, continues to welcome young adults to the monthly Friday night Havurah on the Hill program.
In the Fenway, Temple Israel reaches out to students at nearby Simmons, Emmanuel, Wentworth and other schools, offering free tickets if they come in before the holidays with a valid ID.
Of course, major schools are located outside Boston proper. “We warmly welcome students from Bentley and Brandeis for our High Holiday services, and all year,” said Rabbi Jeff Foust of Temple Beth Israel of Waltham, who is both a Brandeis alum and the Jewish Advisor to Hillel and the Jewish community of Bentley. Beth Israel sends notices to Brandeis Hillel and the Jewish e-list at Bentley, he said. It’s a comprehensive, thoughtful effort. “We work with Bentley students to organize student carpooling, both to here and to Brandeis,” said Foust. Congregants drive students back to campus, offer home hospitality, and help with campus dinners and breakfasts.
In addition to Hillel at Brandeis’ multidenominational High Holiday services, weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services attract 400 students, and Shabbat dinners serve 300, said Executive Director Larry Sternberg.
Some synagogues attract more graduate and older students coming to worship. “We used to get students from Tufts,” said David Sayres, Vice President of Temple Shalom in Medford, “but Tufts currently has a very active Hillel, and the students don't venture off campus for services.” The synagogue does advertise in Shalom Boston and local newspapers and sends tickets to Gesher City, but it is mainly post- Hillel students who attend, including Harvard students who live outside of Cambridge. “I myself joined Temple Shalom while still a graduate student,” said Sayres, who added that the synagogue sees parents of Tufts students who are visiting their children.
All embrace continued attendance. Beth Israel’s Foust said students are encouraged to lead parts of services and join in their coffeehouses, movies and other programs. Temple Israel's Riverway Project keeps 20s and 30s-aged young adults connected, and according to a spokesperson, the shul offers them a special $36 first-year membership.
Synagogues and Hillels are “home away from home” for many undergrads, and staff do all they can to facilitate, even advocate, for their holiday experience. During the first night of Rosh HaShanah, B.U.’s Heller blesses each student with challah and honey. “It takes forever, and some of the blessings, such as "You should get all A's this semester" get repeated, but it's a special time for me to meet new students and there are usually some hilarious and touching moments,” he said.
“Students feel a lot of academic pressure, especially when holidays fall on weekdays,” he continued. “Some will squeeze services in between two classes. Others just sweat about it.” He said that B.U. Hillel is thus working on a pilot program with the university to have classes made available via video to students after the holiday. “They can then watch the same lecture as everyone else, and be able to celebrate with a clear mind,” he said.