As the sun began to set on Oct. 26, approximately 40 members of the Arcadia community gathered in the Dining Complex Lecture Room 107 to recognize Shabbat. That gathering was partially the result of a panel formed to explore how to promote and expand Jewish life on campus and the fund that was established by President Carl (Tobey) Oxholm to facilitate the endeavor. Holding newly created prayer books, attendees shared a hushed and nervous excitement as they embarked on a new Arcadia tradition, which was coordinated by students of Hillel, the Shabbat Committee and Julie Benioff, Arcadia’s recently appointed Rabbinic Intern.
“Shabbat is a traditional day of sweetness, joy and peace,” explains Benioff. “The phones and computers turn off, the work stops. It is the day of rest mimicking the creation story from the Bible. Jews are encouraged to do the things that help restore their souls. In the creation story in our Bible, the Torah, God ceased God’s work, and technically it says ‘God was re-ensouled.’ So take time each week to be ‘re-ensouled’ or rejuvenated. Our Shabbat at Arcadia is to try to have a little bit of that here on campus.”
Benioff, who is currently studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College in Wyncote, Pa., has coordinated every detail of Shabbat in just a few short weeks. To design the Friday night service and prayer book, she met individually with each member of the Shabbat Committee to discuss his or her experience of the tradition. The committee’s likes and dislikes directly informed Benioff’s decisions concerning the selection of prayers.
“What we’ve tried to do is create something that everybody can relate and connect to no matter what their knowledge level and experience is of Judaism,” she says. “We had to strike a balance because everyone has a different knowledge level.” Every prayer is expressed in Hebrew, transliteration, and translation, and there are further readings to help participants explore the different ideas expressed in the prayers. “It’s a growing document,” she says. “I would love for the students to take ownership of the document and study it, and collaborate on its contents. It’s a big project.”
Because most of the prayers are sung and include many different melodies, Benioff created CDs for students, so they could learn and practice each melodic variation.
Prepared for the first Arcadia Shabbat, members of the Arcadia community, including Jan Tecklin and Dr. Dina Pinsky, participated by leading songs and readings. Dana Waldman led songs on the guitar and Samantha Silverstein volunteered to give the d’var Torah.
“It’s another word for sermon,” explains Benioff. “‘D’var Torah’ means ‘word’ or ‘teaching’ from Torah, which is based on the calendar. We read the Torah every year, and we follow a weekly schedule, so every Jew all over the world is reading the same text at the same time. I want a student to do it every week. I think it’s a really wonderful opportunity for them.”
Benioff is hoping to empower students by offering them leadership roles. “I am really proud, particularly of our student volunteers. Dana learned and is continuing to learn more songs. It’s just a really sweet, wonderful accompaniment to the service. Samantha also did a great job. In the midst of all the things she’s already doing, she read and researched the week’s portion of the Torah and thought about what it brought up for her—she talked about her own life and what it meant for her life and shared that with us. What’s happening in an individual’s life is also happening in my life and that’s the beauty of humanity.”
At the conclusion of the service, participants continued the celebration with a vegetarian pasta buffet catered by Parkhurst Dining Services. To help students take part in the event, members of staff and faculty agreed to sponsor students’ meals.
Gathering before the meal to say blessings over the challah, the traditional Jewish bread, Benioff led the community in a tradition from her former home of Fairbanks, Alaska. “If you’re not touching the challah, you touch someone who’s touching the challah, or you touch someone who’s touching someone whose touching the challah. In Fairbanks, we called it ‘challah-lectricity.’ The students loved it.”
As Hillel works to establish this campus tradition, Benioff says she is looking forward to getting more feedback from the students on campus.
For more information, email Julie Benioff at firstname.lastname@example.org.