“No Shabbat on Friday, March 6th due to Washington Universities Spring Break!”
So read an email I received a year and a half ago, during my senior year of college. Leaving aside the grammatical errors, I laughed. Of course there was Shabbat; There was just no Shabbat dinner at Hillel. I assumed that they’d forgotten to type a word. Then I saw this item, again from Wash. U.’s Hillel, on my Facebook news feed today:
“FREE SHABBAT TONIGHT IN COLLEGE HALL AT 7:15!”
Now this is a problem for me. See, I’m glad I don’t have to pay for the privilege of Shabbat, but I live in New York and it would be pretty tough for me to make it to St. Louis in time for sundown. Plus, I don’t really want to spend an entire night and day in one room.
Enough with the sarcasm. Shabbat is a day of the week, and Jews have traditionally observed it as a day of rest–expressing that in a variety of ways. Some try to observe all of the day’s rabbinic prohibitions and requirements while others prefer modern or personal interpretations of what “rest” might mean, but they’ve done it across the continents and they’ve never had to pay for it. Many Jews don’t observe Shabbat at all. Either way, it’s still a day of the week, and it comes every week–all over the world and at no cost.
Maybe I’m making too much of a couple careless errors, but I’m afraid that there’s a larger problem here. By using language like this, Wash. U.’s Hillel assumes and implies that its Shabbat programming is the only possible manifestation of Shabbat on campus. If dinner is cancelled, Shabbat is too. if dinner is free and in one specific room, so is Shabbat.
Leaving aside the many other campus and local institutional options for Shabbat observance–including a vibrant Chabad and a few local synagogues that cater to students–Hillel should not be speaking like this. Students can have their own meals, organize their own services and make their own choices as to how they want to forge community and observe Jewish ritual. The Hillel staff needs to remember that though Hillel exists as a facilitator of Jewish life, the two are not synonymous. Shabbat dinner at Hillel is not Shabbat.
I’m even more surprised because Wash. U.’s Hillel staff, in my experience, encouraged and invested in independent student initiatives. They subsidized independent student meals and gave awards to students who founded their own Jewish clubs. They need to extend that attitude to Shabbat and recognize that they’re there to help students, not to tell them when and where to be Jewish.
For that Shabbat before spring break–which did exist–I remember that a friend of mine hosted a small dinner at her apartment and then we had lunch the next day either at the synagogue or our Chabad. This week, I’ll be observing the day of rest in Manhattan and I’ll be cooking lunch–which will, unfortunately, cost money.