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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Gainesville Jewish community observes an atypical Yom Kippur

Photo of Yom Kippur services at UF Hillel in 2019

Rabbi Jonah Zinn leads High Holy Day services at UF Hillel last year.

While COVID-19 has changed everyday life, Gainesville residents and students are finding their own way to observe Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar.

With more than 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S, Rachel Gordan, a UF Jewish studies professor, said the annual High Holy Day question, “What’s going to happen to me and my loved ones?” is more real. She isn’t alone. Like Gordan, people of all faiths are finding new ways to celebrate religious holidays amid the pandemic. 

That’s why Gordan is streaming Yom Kippur services from Huntington Jewish Center in New York, where her brother leads the congregation’s prayers. She would usually attend in-person services at Congregation B’nai Israel, located at 3830 NW 16th Boulevard. 

“I miss getting to see that [Congregation B’nai Israel] community because since I moved here in 2017, it’s really become my Jewish community,” Gordan said. “But because we’re not meeting, it’s nice to actually get the chance to see my brother do his thing so well.”

Yom Kippur is a time when Jews self-reflect and try to understand their shortcomings in the past year, said Rabbi Jonah Zinn, the executive director at UF Hillel.

Technology, including Zoom, is usually banned on Jewish holidays, Zinn said. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Jews around the world have had to decide what makes them less comfortable: being around others or using technology on a holy day.

“The practices that are traditional on Yom Kippur are designed to help people confront their own vulnerabilities,” Zinn said. 

The Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and end with Yom Kippur, Zinn said. The days in between are known as the Ten Days of Repentance. 

This year, student organizations such as Chabad UF and UF Hillel created a menu for students to engage in the holiday based on their comfort with physical or virtual interaction, Zinn said. The events at both organizations are outdoors at their facility, respect social distancing and require an RSVP.  

Prayers are being spoken instead of sung and masks are mandatory in an effort to eliminate droplet spread among participants, Zinn said. Virtual streaming is also available.

Yom Kippur is a day in which many students who wouldn’t usually participate in religious services choose to attend, Zinn said. Others may choose to go to class but continue to fast while doing so.

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Jewish students, like Tamar Madjar, a 19-year-old UF political science sophomore, fast for 25 hours for Yom Kippur. 

She said she has fasted every year since becoming a bat mitzvah, a recognized adult woman in the Jewish community, at 12 years old. She doesn’t go to classes on Yom Kippur and attends holiday services in the morning.

This year, Madjar is observing the holiday from her childhood home in New York, where she’s been taking her classes online this semester.

“Fasting is a metaphor to kind of clear yourself of wrongdoings or things that you regret that have happened,” Madjar said. “I just like that idea of starting fresh.”

Sarah Fishkin, a 17-year-old UF criminology freshman, noticed early on in the semester that she had two exams scheduled on Yom Kippur. She was able to reschedule one of them but had to take the other Monday morning.

“It’s weird that I’m going to be doing schoolwork on the holiday where I usually am with my family,” Fishkin said. 

Fishkin observed the holiday on her own Sunday evening and will attend in-person services at Chabad UF Monday.

“I think students are grateful for the extent to which we’re prioritizing public health and doing everything we can to create different opportunities for students who are comfortable with different types of experiences,” Zinn said.

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