The Jewish High Holidays won't be the same this year for Rachel Cohen.
The Stevenson High School graduate from Buffalo Grove will spend her first Rosh Hashana away from home Monday, immersed in the early weeks of her freshman year at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
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Despite the presence of her older sister on campus, Cohen said it will be weird not to be home for the holidays.
"It's just a very big family event," she said.
This year, both the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur fall on weekdays when college is in session, making it hard for students to come home.
But Hillel, a foundation that helps sustain Jewish communities on hundreds of university campuses in the U.S. and overseas, aims to help students like Cohen. The activities and services Hillel schedules are meant to create a sense of community all its own.
Though Cohen doesn't see the Hillel as a perfect replacement for the family she'll miss, she does recognize it as the next best thing available to her.
The Hillel in Urbana-Champaign is the original one in the U.S. After its establishment in 1923, the idea quickly spread to other campuses near and far.
Though the Jewish New Year is in many ways a time for reflection, introspection and the finding of a better self, it is also a time when togetherness with family and community is important, said Rabbi Rogerio Cukierman of the U of I Hillel. Students can't leave, unlike Christian students whose major holiday, Christmas, comes during winter break, Cukierman said.
"We try to replicate that home environment," he said. "The whole process is a catalyzer for that introspection."
Rosh Hashana begins at sundowntoday. Depending on whether students are reform or conservative, it either ends Monday night or Tuesday night.
Not only does the Hillel organize synagogue services for reform, conservative and orthodox students, it will have a dinner tonight and luncheons on Monday and Tuesday which all Jewish students can share.
Matt Treshansky of Deerfield is a freshman finding his feet in Urbana-Champaign. He's found joining the separate organization of Illini Chabad to be a helpful way of meeting new people. Though he hasn't regularly attended Rosh Hashana services since his bar mitzvah, he's planning to this year.
"It's like a place where people from the same background can come together," Treshansky said.
The Hillel at Bradley University in Peoria goes so far as to pair individual students up with volunteer families from the local community for the High Holidays, Rabbi Daniel Bogard said.
He said it's a blessing that there are always more families willing to open up their homes than there have been students looking for such an opportunity. And these one-night dinners often establish long-term relationships between students and a friendly home away from home.
Though the Bradley University Hillel has itself been around since the 1940s, it is in the process of establishing a new identity for itself with a new facility and Bogard serving as its first official director.
"We want to improve the number of meaningful contacts we have with students," Bogard said.
Examples include doing more social justice work and holding events to raise money to fight hunger, he said.
Holidays: Hillel offers services, activities for Jewish students