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Jewish students, faculty engage in day of prayer, reflections

Sara Felsenstein | Friday, October 7, 2011

While most members of the Notre Dame community will engage in football and weekend activities tomorrow, Jewish students and faculty will engage in a day of serious prayer and introspection.

Sunset tonight marks the start of one of the holiest days of the year in Judaism — Yom Kippur.

Michael Novick, an assistant professor of theology who practices Orthodox Judaism, said Yom Kippur is spent almost exclusively in prayer with one’s religious community.

“[Yom Kippur is] an extremely communal holiday because the entire day is spent in the synagogue with the community. In some respects it’s the most intensely communal holiday,” he said. “There is a sense that one stands before God as a community.”

He said Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, consists of prayer and a 25-hour fast, from sunset until the emergence of stars the next day.

What distinguishes Yom Kippur from all other fast days, he said, is that Jews refrain from additional sources of enjoyment, like wearing leather shoes, wearing makeup and having sexual intercourse.

Novick said in the days leading to Yom Kippur, Jews seek direct forgiveness from others because it is not in God’s power to forgive interpersonal sins.

“Jewish theology recognizes two kinds of sins, sins against God and sins against one’s fellow human being,” Novick said. “It’s not a matter of simply standing before God, but standing before one’s fellows.”

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Curtis Franks, who is also an Orthodox Jew, said prayer and self-scrutiny during Yom Kippur are intense.

“It’s very introspective and self-focused,” he said. “I want to better myself … I want to have atonement for my transgressions and to become more religiously committed or ethically responsible than I had been in the past.”

Franks said that during his time at Notre Dame, he has never experienced anything but respect from students and colleagues, However, he feels there is a general lack of awareness of Judaism on campus.

“There’s not a lot of awareness on campus about the nature of Jewish thought, and yet there’s a lot of interest. That’s a very fertile ground to enlighten people,” he said.

Franks said he meets with students outside of class once a year to discuss Judaism and take questions about the religion. He said the purpose of these discussions is to dispel misconceptions.

“In American culture, there’s an idea that Judaism is probably pretty similar to whatever religious belief system people are acquainted with, but in reality this isn’t true,” he said.

Susan Blum, professor of anthropology who practices Conservative Judaism, said familiarity with Judaism and what it stands for ranges on campus.

“There’s a lot of variation. I think some faculty and some students are quite knowledgeable, and others are quite ignorant,” Blum said. “Students tend to be very curious. They tend not to know that much about [Judaism.] Some of the ones who went to Catholic school and had only Catholic friends growing up are very curious and eager to discuss.”

Blum said spirituality on Notre Dame’s campus is accessible even to those outside of the Christian tradition.

“I’ve never had a negative reaction from anybody at Notre Dame,” Blum said. “I always get a sense of respect.”