On a night when most Drake University students are cramming for their Monday classes, Amanda Shifrin is on a Zoom call with her rabbi, her family and the rest of her Jewish community. The room is dim and quiet as she prepares for the Yom Kippur service, separated by hundreds of miles but spiritually closer than ever.
The Jewish community turned COVID restrictions to their advantage as many observed Yom Kippur virtually on Sept. 27 and 28.
“It’s when we’re forgiven of all our sins, so for me it’s a cleanse of anything that may have happened the year prior; it’s a fresh beginning for the new year,” Shifrin said.
Despite being a state away from her family and community, Shifrin was able to connect with them virtually.
“I livestreamed my services back home, for Kol Nidre Sunday night and then Monday morning as well,” Shifrin said. “We had a Zoom link, so I could see my mom’s video and be there with her virtually.”
Despite the benefits of Zoom, it couldn’t replace going to temple.
“In-person is more intense and meaningful, because you don’t have any outside distractions,” Shifrin said.
Drake Hillel, the campus club for those of Jewish faith, hosted a socially-distanced dinner at Dough Co. to break the Yom Kippur fast and alleviate any disconnect.
“I really enjoyed having dinner with Hillel,” Shifrin said. “It helps that connection on campus, since there aren’t many Jewish students here.”
Hillel International estimates the population of Jewish students at Drake to be around 100, a fraction of the student body.
Brad Crowell, associate professor of religion specializing in the Hebrew bible, is familiar with the history of Yom Kippur.
“Yom Kippur is one of the oldest Jewish holidays,” Crowell said. “In the ancient world, this goes back to Bible times, it was a day in which a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of all the people.”
The rituals of Yom Kippur have changed in the modern day, but the forgiveness of sins is still a prevalent theme.
“It’s a day of setting things straight, of asking forgiveness from someone you’ve wronged,” Crowell said. “It’s a day of community. It’s also a day of fasting and prayer.”
Crowell is optimistic about the Jewish community’s resilience during COVID.
“Judaism has always been a religion that’s been pretty flexible,” Crowell said. “It’s always been able to adapt to the larger culture and whatever problems that are thrown at it.”
Crowell is also optimistic about how Zoom could be uniting Jewish communities.
“The one benefit that something like Zoom can have is, since often Jewish families are spread out around the world, this can bring everyone together again in ways that used to take airplanes, money and time,” Crowell said. “It can, in some ways, bring communities closer together.”
Kathleen McCracken is the president of Interfaith at Drake, a 4-year-old club of 21 students working to educate students on the different faiths of Des Moines. McCracken shared her perspective on religious holidays during COVID.
“I know that a lot of communities have moved to online worship or online programing, while others have not and have moved to a ‘do what you can with your family in your home,’” McCracken said.
For religious students, connection to a larger religious community is valuable during these trying times.
“A lot of people, when they’re struggling, look to their faith for comfort,” McCracken said.
Drake students looking to learn more about religious holidays such as Yom Kippur can email email@example.com for more information on Interfaith at Drake.