Shortly after the sun set Friday, a diverse group of about 50 people gathered at Fairfield University for Kabbalat Shabbat, a Jewish worship service of prayer and song to welcome the Sabbath.
It was the first time in the Catholic school's history that a Shabbat service was held on the campus. It was followed by a Shabbat dinner in which Judaic dietary laws were observed.
Ellen Umansky, director of the university's Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies, said she has worked at the university almost two decades and the Shabbat service and dinner added significantly to the campus culture. "I have felt a great sense of intellectual community and a great sense of social community and for the first time in 17 years a great sense of religious community," Umansky said.
She thanked the Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, university chaplain, for creating an inter-faith prayer experience and recognizing the diversity of the campus despite its particular religious roots. "To actually see the university embrace Judaism is really incredible. It's celebrating the diversity that exists here. It's incredibly heart-warming. I had tears in my eyes," said Robyn Kaplan, program coordinator of the Office of University Activities. Kaplan is Jewish.
Blaszczak said Jesuit universities should be places where people of diverse religious communities, and those with no religious affiliations, can meet and learn from each other.
"It is the right of religious communities to practice their traditions openly, and the responsibility of a Jesuit University to encourage and assist them in being able to do so," he said.
Presiding over the service was Rabbi Suri Kreiger, who explained various elements of the Shabbat to those not of the Jewish faith. The service included the lighting of candles, a call to worship and prayers of peace and healing in English and Hebrew. "We always include a prayer of healing of mind, body and spirit," Kreiger said. "There has been a lot of darkness in the world in the last few weeks in Arizona, in Egypt, in other parts of the Middle East," she said, referring to the recent attack on a U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the protestors in the streets of Cairo seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak and the movements in other Middle Eastern nations to remove dictators from power.
The service concluded with those gathered singing, "This Little Light of Mine."
At the dinner, Kreiger prayed over wine and a loaf of Challah bread. Umansky broke the bread and distributed it to each of the tables.
Kevin Bachman, 19, of Bronx, N.Y., a Fairfield University sophomore, said he learned about the Shabbat service from Umansky, the professor for the Faith After the Holocaust course he is taking. Bachman, who is Catholic, invited his girlfriend Shoshana Induyk, 19, of Stamford, who is Jewish, to attend the event with him.
"I'm glad Kevin wanted to come to this," said Induyk, who had a first-time experience of her own. "It was my first time at a reform service. I grew up in an Orthodox home," said Induyk, a student at the University of Maryland, who came back to Connecticut for the Shabbat service and dinner.
"To have so many students, faculty and staff with us was really beautiful," Umansky said. The booklet that was distributed to those in attendance to follow along and participate in the service included a quote from the Society of Ethical Culture that read, "A place where people meet to seek the highest is sacred ground."
"We really created a sacred space," Umansky said. Fairfield University will host a Kabbalat Shabbat service and dinner every month. The next is scheduled for March 4.
For more information, call Fairfield University at 203-254-4000.