The Year the Library Became My Synagogue
I attended a small college in upstate New York, about five hours from my home, and I did not go home for Rosh HaShanah my freshman year. In terms of observing the holiday, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Even though my college had a substantial Jewish population, I did not have Jewish friends in my dorm or in my classes. My college did not have an active Hillel that year, but students were invited to Hillel services at a large Ivy League university located "across the hill" in the same town. My other choice was to go "down the hill" to the local synagogue. When I contacted them, I learned that students were warmly welcomed to worship there.
My choices were: shlep across the hill alone, or shlep down the hill alone, or spend the High Holidays like I spent every other evening, laughing, studying, and talking in the company of my dorm friends.
I ended up choosing a different option: none of the above.
Instead, I spent Rosh HaShanah in my college library reading the Encyclopedia Judaica. I didn't exactly read it from cover to cover, though I did begin with aleph and flipped through the pages, skipping that which did not interest me and spending lots of time on that which caught my attention. It was without the presence of a minyan; it was quiet, personal, Jewish, and sacred. I stayed until the library closed and walked contentedly back to my dorm feeling a little changed, a little different than when I started.
Later on in the year, I did engage with Hillel. Whether it was a holiday celebration or Shabbat worship, I don't exactly remember. What I do remember is sharing with the rabbi my unique way of observing Rosh HaShanah. It felt good to tell someone about that unusual experience.
The following Rosh HaShanah, I opted for Hillel. As the rabbi began his sermon, I had a little bit of déjà vu, something in his opening comments seemed so familiar... and then it became extremely familiar. The sermon was me, and I was the sermon: the story of a freshman co-ed who didn't know where to put herself for the holiday. Nothing seemed like a good fit, so she wound up in the library studying all things Jewish.
Was I blushing? Was I flushed and feeling like a spotlight was shining on me? Oh, yes, indeed. Where was this going, and what would be the ultimate message? Was it a good thing to engage in Jewish study? Or was this activity about to be condemned as a bad thing on the Jewish new year, separating from the community and refraining from prayer?
The rabbi’s message was: This activity is unique, creative, relevant, and worth repeating! In fact, the rabbi said we can and should do Jewish and be Jewish in our own way. To engage in Jewish growth and Jewish learning is just as important as – if not more important than – engaging in prayer. Alone time can be as engaging as time with the community, and we need both in our lives.
Every year on Rosh HaShanah, I think about my Rosh holiday spent in the library. I think about it when I attend an adult education class at temple or engage in any measure of Jewish learning, whether it is watching an Israeli movie, reading a daily Ten Minutes of Torah essay, or learning a new Hebrew word a day. I think about it all the time, and I am grateful for the experience.
Lois Rubin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism's North American Board of Trustees and Oversight Committee. She chairs the URJ South District and is a past president of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, FL.