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Synagogues open doors to college students for High Holy Days

Rabbis Charles Klein (left) and Ronald Brown, stand

Rabbis Charles Klein (left) and Ronald Brown, stand in the sanctuary at Temple Beth Am of Merrick on Sept. 28, 2016. Klein and Brown are marking Rosh Hashanah, which begins Sunday at sunset, and Yom Kippur, starting Oct. 11 at sundown, with a new program, called Synagogue Connect aimed at inviting college students into synagogues on Long Island and across the nation for the High Holy Days. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Two Long Island rabbis have attracted 600 synagogues across the nation to a new program they started aimed at bringing Jewish college students into temples during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The program, called Synagogue Connect, also seeks to provide support amid what the rabbis call an increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students on many college campuses.

“The response has been absolutely amazing,” said Rabbi Ronald Brown of Temple Beth Am of Merrick, who started the program along with Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre. “It’s across the board,” including reform, conservative and orthodox denominations.

The program works by inviting college students to attend services during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which starts Sunday at sunset and ends Tuesday at sunset, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the year in Judaism, which starts at sunset Oct. 11.

Typically, most synagogues allow only members who pay an annual fee to attend services for the high holy days, Klein said. Synagogue Connect is inviting them to attend for free.

Some 600 synagogues in 48 states plus the District of Columbia have joined the program, the rabbis said. The synagogues are listed on the group’s website.

Many students also do not have options during the High Holy Days because their parents are not affiliated with — or members of — a synagogue, the rabbis said. The program may help bring them into synagogues.

“We want Jewish college students who are experiencing enormous anti-Semitism on these campuses to know that there are synagogues all over the country that want them to come…for the high holidays,” Klein said.

“We are asking rabbis not to just open doors on high holidays but to make themselves available as rabbis to these students should they want to turn to the rabbis for whatever, counseling, support,” he added.

Leaders of one synagogue, Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, said they immediately signed up for the program when they heard about it.

Lois Rubin, a past president of the congregation, said members do not only want to invite college students in for the holidays, but also make them feel especially welcome — so they may perhaps come back.

“When you are thinking of a college student, perhaps it is their first year that they’re away from home, and feeling maybe a little lonely, they’re not having the dinner with their family and they’re not together with their family,’’ Rubin said, adding, ‘‘The ability to go a place that will welcome them” can be especially valuable.

The Long Island rabbis are running the program in conjunction with Alpha Epsilon Pi, the largest Jewish fraternity in the country, with a presence on 152 campuses in the U.S.

“So far it has been great,” said John Pierce, a spokesman for the nationwide fraternity. “It’s been really well-received by undergraduates.”

The fraternity helped set up the Synagogue Connect website.

The holy days are the most important of the year for Jews.

Unlike secular society’s New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is marked not by partying but by intense self-reflection among practicing Jews, local rabbis said. It is a time when Jews think about how they have acted, seek forgiveness from those they have wronged, and dedicate themselves to living a better life.

The High Holy Days kick off with the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. The sound is meant to awaken the faithful symbolically from their “slumber” in preparation for the coming judgment. Congregations also will light special candles and say special prayers.

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