Living Judaism Out Loud: Jewish Community Is Small But Vibrant
Red & Black (September 16, 2021)
On Thursday evening, one may catch a glimpse of Jewish families drinking sweetened tea or other traditional drinks in the breaking of the 25-hour fast that is Yom Kippur. Beginning at sunset on Sept. 15, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.
As a minority in a college town, the Jewish community chooses to focus not on the small amount of standing buildings, but the people inside.
A small but lively community
“There’s obviously a lot less Jews around here. Intensity-wise, I would say it’s stronger here because people have to live their Judaism kind of out loud when the community is a little bit smaller,” Jeremy Lichtig, campus director of Hillel at the University of Georgia, said.
The Athens community is home to only one synagogue. Even so, the Jewish population found other ways to come together.
Hillel at UGA is a touchpoint for Jewish students in Athens. Lichtig leads Hillel to bring the students together in a family-like fashion by providing large dinners and services on Jewish holidays and matzo ball soup deliveries when students are under the weather.
“It’s a small community, but that only means that you can have a voice a little bit easier. You don’t have to fight through the other noise,” Lichtig said. “We empower our students to go after what they’re passionate about and, in the same way, I empower the staff.”
Passersby of Hillel may catch a glimpse of spaghetti and meatballs as the people inside prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that spans from the evening of Sept. 15 to the evening of Sept. 16. The feast is traditionally a large, sustainable meal to be finished before the sunset prior to the fast.
During Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the community focuses on conversations with God after mending relationships with their community in the days following Rosh Hashanah, another Jewish holiday. For Lichtig, this means being “as angel-like as possible,” which is why most people participate in fasting and prayer.
Lichtig will participate in Yom Kippur with the Hillel community and anyone else who wants to participate in what he calls “28 hours of going strong,” ending with a breaking of the fast including bagels, lox, fruit and kugel — a sweet, egg noodle casserole.
“In Judaism, you’re not really allowed to do a lot of things alone. There’s rules. You’re supposed to try to get 10 people together to pray, because you’re creating a small community so it’s much more powerful for the individuals,” Lichtig said.
Stereotypes and challenges
Being a minority in Athens, Jewish people may experience microaggressions or unfair stereotypes due to misconceptions.
“I tend to think [Judaism] is a little misunderstood in a lot of places,” said Sarah Schafer, a junior landscape architecture major. “I get told a lot that I don’t look Jewish, or I get asked how am I Jewish if I don’t practice the way they think I should.”
Schafer also experienced conflict with being granted excused absences from class for Jewish holidays. In certain cases, she had to save up her absences for holidays with her family.
“I’ve had presentations [on Jewish holidays],” Schafer said. “I just have to miss them and kind of suffer the consequences.”
Jewish Greek life members sometimes have to miss trips home to celebrate holidays if they conflict with date nights or other scheduled events, which are made without consideration of the Jewish calendar.
For Mara Zeichner, the assistant director of Hillel, practicing Judaism in cities with a small Jewish community brought with it anti-Semetic microaggressions, such as that she “didn’t actually believe in God.”
She became the coordinator for the families of young children within PJ Library in Athens, which provides free books for Jewish children and their families.
Zeichner also spends her Sundays on north campus teaching yoga to students and incorporating Jewish themes into some of her classes.
“Right now, we’re in the middle of the High Holidays, and one of the themes of that is something called ‘t’shuvah,’ the translation is ‘return,’” Zeichner said. “I like to use that as a focus for students in class — returning to your breath, or what or who it is that you want to return to.”
For Zeichner, a small community means more opportunities for leadership, immersion into the religion and getting creative. Athens “is a small community, but it’s so vibrant,” she said.
Although smaller numbers present their own challenges, students and adults in the Jewish community have been able to find the silver lining and work with the university to iron out holiday scheduling.
“It can be difficult at some points. I appreciate the university has reached out more and more to try to rectify it as much as possible so we’re not doing big events on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah,” Lichtig said.
Lichtig emphasized that while things aren’t perfect, the university has reached out to make sure that students “feel seen.”
Schafer believes it is crucial to keep an open mind in a city with different viewpoints in order to avoid misunderstandings and preconceived notions.
“I enjoy when people want to get to know about something that they’re not a part of or have never really learned a whole lot about,” Schafer said. “I think any sort of education in any sort of realm is important.”
While still in the process of bringing down walls and ending stereotypes, Lichtig believes Athens is overall a welcoming community to Judaism and hopes to grow that theme within Hillel itself in holding out a hand to other communities as well.
“The drive is there to make the community better, regardless of religion — regardless of anything,” Lichtig said. “[We are] coming up with creative ways of making Jewish education accessible, all the time — that it’s not a scary thing that only a select few can do, that it can be accessible to everyone, no matter what your background is.”
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