Yesterday I was glancing ahead in the syllabus for Bio 191, and I realized that my first exam is on the same night as Rosh Hashannah. Rosh Hashannah is the Jewish New Year, and one of “High Holy Days,” the most important days in our calendar. It sort of shocked me that no one had noticed this before me, even a week before the test. Was there no one Jewish or Jewish-affiliated in the faculty that would have caught this? No administrative email about important non-Christian holidays that some students might need to be dismissed for?
I have always been a religious person in a secular context. Amherst students, while diverse in many ways, seem to share their indifference for religion. Yes, there are several clubs and groups for religious students, but I see this in part as a testimony to how a-religious the campus is. These clubs form the exception to the “secular rule,” they are not the norm here.
The Cadigan Center, (the Amherst Center for Religious Life) is shabby and way off campus (aka across Route 9, which is, for notoriously lazy Amherst students, a huge schlep). Its’ steps have literally fallen apart and every time I scramble up I slip where a slab of concrete has broken down. The supposedly kosher (clean according to Jewish law) kitchen is barely functional: only two of the four stove burners work, and there never seem to be any pans. I compare the Cadigan Center with the Rainbow Room, which is stuffed with couches, videos and books, or Drew House, which is undoubtedly second only to Charles Pratt in architectural beauty, and I feel that the religious members of campus are coming up short.
The same way Pride kids need a “safe space” on campus where they can be out and discuss their sexual identities with other students and Pamela (the advisor), I find that I need a sacred space: a place where I can pray, and be at peace.
I have been a Jew my whole life. Every Friday night I have in some way noted the ending of the week and the beginning of the Jewish day of rest (Shabbat). The space where I pray, and the community to be Jewish with, has always been provided for me.
Now, as president of the Amherst Hillel, I have found myself in a position where I am supposed to provide that space and community for other people. I am no longer merely a breathing body in the room, but I have to create the room, where, at least thus far at Amherst, it doesn’t feel suffecient.
Realizing that my Bio exam was at the same time as evening services was sort of like when Harry Potter realized that his father’s patronus sent from across the lake to rescue him from dementors was actually his own, after he used a time turner to save Hagrid’s hippogriff and Sirius. (If you aren’t familiar with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, sorry, you probably don’t get this.)
The non-Potter equivalent would be that I have to take on responsibility for the things I don’t like at Amherst, in my Jewish community. The steps of Cadigan are broken? We get them fixed. I want sacred space? I have the power to imbue sanctity in a space, at least for myself. There is no neatly labeled “synagogue” for me anymore. Instead I need to find a space and make it sacred… and ask my teacher about rescheduling that exam.