Last Wednesday, I spent a few short hours in the Berkeley Hillel center at the top of Bancroft Avenue among 100 or so local community members. It was Yom Kippur, and everyone was gathered for the service that would mark the end of a day-long fast and the “High Holy Days” season.
In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a chance to pray, reflect and ask for forgiveness from God and others whom one may have wronged during the year —- the phrase “clean slate” comes to mind. But for these religious followers, starting a new year seems to indicate undertaking the work of cleaning that slate, which, in my opinion, is an extremely humbling and genuine task. Recent UC Berkeley graduate Brian Maissy — an orthodox Jew currently in Israel who I spoke with on the phone— would even start preparing for this Day of Atonement “months before” to “receive forgiveness for mistakes (of) the last year.” That sounds just downright daunting, but it is the foundation of Yom Kippur.
As the Hillel crowd, scattered with yarmulke-ed men, offered prayers in Hebrew, I learned about this sacred celebration from a pamphlet left just outside the meeting room. Besides a general description of the holiday, I read about a list of prohibitions for the day, including an explanation for the fast and an interesting rule against wearing leather shoes. And although my nerdy, religiously curious self reveled in both the info packet and the “in-the-field” experience, I couldn’t help but remark the diversity of the community that I saw in front of me.
Certainly, one experience with a community is not sufficient to paint a complete picture, but my night at the Yom Kippur service proved to be an engaging starting point.
Given that the center is closely associated with the UC Berkeley campus, I wasn’t expecting to see non-students at the service. While students were the majority, the rest of the crowd consisted of older couples, families and single adults. To be fair, any of these could have also been members of the campus community in a number of other capacities, but it was decidedly not a crowd of 18-22 year olds.
So as I sat after the service, munching on some “break-fast” bagels, I began to think about community building in Judaism in general, but more specifically, here at Berkeley. A strong sense of community is commonly included in general stereotypes of Jewish populations and a multitude of speculations have been made over the years as to why this might be. Building Jewish Bridges, a Bay Area group focused on interfaith community members, implied in a 2008 blog post that Moses and the “children of Israel” could be a source of this community resonsibility. Additionally, a long and recent history of persecution has certainly helped to unify this religion even in face of modern individualism. But what strikes me as equally important is the established cultural identity, much like in other religions, that is constantly reinforced by rituals such as Friday night Shabbat, the High Holy Days as well as the wearing of a yarmulke for some.
One example of the diversity within the Jewish community can be seen in the many different Jewish student groups on campus. My conversation with Maissy turned to this very subject of unity. He said there is a sense of unity within the larger Jewish community on campus, despite their denominational differences — Maissy felt there was little tension between different denominations. Of course no community is perfectly cohesive all the time, but from what I’ve seen, Jews at Berkeley seem particularly able to come together around rituals like Yom Kippur. I find this community aspect quite refreshing.
Even I felt like I was a tangent part of this community when I was standing in the Hillel center. My non-Jewish presence didn’t seem to bother anyone and even when I headed downstairs to partake of their break-fast — to which I technically had no claim, seeing as I sure hadn’t fasted — I only met friendly smiles. Several Jewish students I spoke with were more than happy to chat with me while we ate. But besides general politeness, there was an underlying invitation in the form of the pamphlet. Jews didn’t need to be educated about their own holiday — it seemed more like a non-invasive manner to inform outsiders that might happen to wander in to this unassuming event.
Arguably, community is an experience better lived than explained. But I left the center with a little more faith in the human ability to share a tradition without focusing on their differences.