Hillel Shabbat unites students of different faiths

Hundreds turned out for helpings of matzah ball soup and a taste of Jewish spiritual life at Washington University Hillel’s Interfaith Shabbat event Friday night.

“I think I learned a lot about the Jewish relationship with God and how the Sabbath is viewed,” said Megan Cook, a Latin American studies major, who considers herself an agnostic. “My family is all Christian so it allowed me to see it a different way as opposed to how I understand a holy day to be.”


Cook, 19, was among a few dozen attendees who turned out for Hillel’s special learner’s service geared towards teaching non-Jews about Judaic traditions.

“I liked not just seeing the prayer itself but how it relates to the background of the faith,” said Katelyn Williamson, 20. “As an English major, I enjoyed getting to see where pieces of the prayer came from and how it all worked together. I think she did a really good job of explaining it in a way that everyone could understand it not coming from a religious background.”

Like Williamson, Joshua Bennett, 19, is of the Christian faith. He said he was unaware of the amount of preparation that often goes into observance of Shabbat, from leaving light switches on or off to not driving or conducting business.

“I knew about Shabbat but I didn’t really know all of what happened on Shabbat,” he said. “It was very interesting and I got a better grasp of what it was all about.”

This is the third year Hillel has held the annual interfaith event but this time it was folded into the university’s debut of Pluralism Week, which began with a panel of local rabbis discussing Jewish traditions. Other events earlier in the week included discussions of Christian beliefs and Islam’s place in the monotheistic tradition as well as a musical concert by the Idan Raichel Project. Students were also welcome to attend Friday Muslim prayers, visit a Hindu temple on Saturday and attend Sunday Mass at the Catholic Student Center.

In addition to the learner’s service, Hillel offered services in the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox traditions, which were followed by a traditional Shabbat dinner. Rayna Schaff, Jewish student life coordinator for Hillel, estimated that over 300 attended the dinner, roughly the same as last year.

“We’re going through all the blessings that are typically done at a Shabbat dinner. Then we’re going to have dialogue during the meal and discuss relevant issues,” she said. “It’s been great to see these students talking about issues that are so important to them while coming together in the things that make them so distinct. I think that’s a really beautiful moment.”

Sarah Ebstein, a neuroscience major acting as a facilitator at one of the tables, said her role was to promote discussion about why people are here, what they want to learn and speak about Jewish customs. Ebstein, 20, said she wanted to help provide a window on Jewish life that people might not otherwise have.

“I hope people get an understanding of Jewish customs and why it is so important for us to come to Hillel,” she said, “because I know a lot of my non-Jewish friends don’t understand it so hopefully people will see why I keep coming.”

Alyssa Kaitz, a sophomore majoring in art history, was a student co-chair of the event. She said she was impressed by the level of enthusiasm among the participants.

“There is a lot of representation here from many different student groups and many different organizations, so I think we’ve got a great turnout,” she said.

Deva Estin, a senior Spanish and the Interdisciplinary Project of the Humanities major, felt the event really struck the right tone for Pluralism Week. “It’s really an exciting thing for people to open their doors to a wider array of students than those who would normally participate,” Estin said. “It’s just a great opportunity to learn about other traditions. It’s also fun to share your own faith.”

Shlomit Cohen is a fellow in the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, a joint program of the Orthodox Union and Hillel. A native St. Louisan now living in New York, she led Friday’s learner’s service and felt the students in attendance were receptive to the message.

“Although we were examining a text coming out of the Jewish religion, a lot of the concepts, like many religious values, are more universal,” she said. “Even though I was using our text as a springboard for that I was hoping people could relate to the larger messages and appreciate where there are commonalities.”

Cohen, 22, later experienced some of those commonalities herself while conversing at dinner with a Catholic woman who, like Cohen, had been a religious studies major. They began discussing different approaches to learning about theology.

“It’s always interesting to see how others relate to their own faith and it’s exciting for me to have the opportunity to look at my own tradition from a fresh perspective,” she said. “As people are asking you questions you start asking yourself those same questions.”