Students socialize at Shabbat n’ Schmooze. Photo by Sambhav Bansal (C’23).
By Luke Gair
Fifteen or so students and community members sat back in their seats silently, looking to Max Saltman (C’21) to guide them through an early evening Shabbat service. Veiny sprawls of sunlight poured through the windows and across a plastic folding table placed at the front of the room. He lit a few taper candles as the sky began to darken, and the McGriff Alumni House bloomed into something more halcyon and holy than expected.
This gathering, which took place February 14 from 4:25 to 5:00 p.m., was the second Shabbat service put on by the Sewanee Jewish Association this semester, with president Ethan Savino (C’22) and secretary Max Saltman (C’21) at the helm of services and events like this one.
Out of curiosity, Saltman asked the group who was Jewish before the service began and only a few raised their hands. When the room cycled through a series of prayers and songs, most attendees timidly followed along with their own idiosyncratic tones and tempos.
Shabbat traditionally rings in the end of the work week, beginning right before sunfall. As a part of one of the 613 Jewish Commandments, observers are not to work during the Sabbath that lasts for roughly 24 hours. With this in mind though, Sewanee students and others who practice Judaism on the Domain are faced with a significant complication: the total count on places of Jewish worship within walking distance of campus is zero.
Saltman explained his reasoning behind transforming a seemingly secular space into the opposite. Even though he is without a car on campus, “technically you aren’t supposed to drive or work on Shabbat, so driving on [this day] seems kind of like a funny thing.” So, ultimately, gatherings like this one provide a “Jewish outlet” in a place where there aren’t any. He went on to express a hope that other students of non-Christian faith can feel comfortable enough to do the same thing.
Saltman’s desire for an interfaith space is a conversation that circulates beyond the student population. Cassie Meyer, director of Dialogue Across Difference programs, also underlined how gatherings are not defined by the spaces wherein they take place.
She explained how the recently organized Interfaith Council, a product of the Dialogue Across Difference program, seeks to “bring together religiously diverse students, faculty, and staff to build relationships, share a meal, and identify and work on ways to make Sewanee more inclusive for those from diverse religious backgrounds.”
While these meetings go beyond civic planning, Meyer highlighted that “a permanent interfaith space where people of all traditions can gather, worship, reflect, [and] meditate… either within their communities or alone” sits at the top of their list in terms of prioritization.
For Meyer personally, she shared that “[at] events like Shabbat n’ Schmooze, or other events that lift up or celebrate Sewanee’s diverse religious community, there are opportunities for everyone who attends to be inspired by someone else.”
Attendees looked to one another as the service came to a close, shrugging the haze of a long work week from their shoulders. In the living room, plastic cups of Manischewitz wine were passed in tandem with a large loaf of challah. Occasionally, someone would smile after placing a piece of bread on their tongue.
Saltman stressed how at the end of the day, “it’s better to pray in a community than it is alone, and that’s really what religion is all about to me… That’s what shabbat is all about: I’m not in this on my own.”