In the wooded space between Delp Hall and Mossey Library, the sound of a ukulele penetrated the quiet evening.
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments,” students sang, “and commanded us to light the lights of Shabbat.”
Those on campus can hear this every Friday at 6:13 p.m. in the amphitheater, when a few Jewish students host a Shabbat service commemorating the Sabbath, or day of rest, and the end of the week. Sophomores Sarah Garfinkel and Alan Kotlyar, and senior David Schwartzman, as a part of the Hillsdale Chavarah club, lead a dinner and prayer service attended weekly by about a dozen students, not all of whom practice the Jewish faith.
The centuries-old service includes about 20 minutes of religious music and prayer, followed by the breaking of challah bread, a white braided loaf, which represents ancient sacrifices made by the Hebrews.
“Having this event every week keeps me anchored to home, my traditions, and faith,” Garfinkel said after the service, smiling as she talked about her heritage. “Sometimes it’s easy to get drowned in a lot of other traditions here at Hillsdale.”
The peculiar start time also grounds attendees in tradition.
“There are 613 commandments in the Torah, and we needed a time around sunset that worked for all of us. We chose 6:13 because it’s holy and starts a conversation,” Garfinkel said.
After lighting candles in the growing dusk, the students sang in Hebrew songs like “Oseh Shalom” (“He Who Makes Peace”), and Garfinkel, Kotlyar, and Schwartzman dedicated prayer to the victims of Hurricane Irma.
The young group sang, “Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah [a full recovery], the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen.”
After pouring grape juice out of a Biggby coffee cup into dixie cups, the friends stood in a circle, hands held in prayer. Praying over and tearing off generous pieces from the soft bread, they talked about what their faith means to them.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Joshua Fincher attended the Shabbat dinner.
“Southern Michigan doesn’t have a very strong Jewish network,” Fincher said. “It was important for me to find out what sort of faith networks existed here.”
He said he appreciates the Jewish culture and history, and while no one knows the true origin of Shabbat, the tradition has lasted over a thousand years.
“The regulations and the structure of this Sabbath meal were probably finalized by the 3rd century BCE,” Fincher said.
Garfinkle said hosting the service every week reminds her what’s important to her.
“I realized that if I wanted to be a Jew, I would have to make it a priority. At home, it’s easy, there are candles and kiddush cups and menorahs everywhere. But coming to Hillsdale, I have to make Judaism a priority, because it’s not easy.”
She paused and looked around the group, saying, “I’m lucky to have you guys.”
“I think this is the one event that we do, our tiny little community,” Kotlyar said. “It kinda just brings us all together, and it reminds me of my roots and heritage. I’m thankful for it.”