I took the shuttle uptown unsure of my destination. It was the first night of slichot and I was traveling to the Heights to say prayers of repentance in preparation for Rosh Hashana. The natural choice was to join the official YU minyan, but something inside me resisted.
Since my first year at Stern, the question of where to say slichot has always been daunting. I discovered the beauty and power of slichot in my Israeli midrasha where I learned to simultaneously beg God for forgiveness and bask in His love, as I a joined a room full of women in crying and dancing. Upon starting YU I knew I couldn’t replicate that experience, but with the start of Elul I found myself craving meaningful prayer. I received an email inviting all students to slichot at the Glueck Beit Midrash on the Wilf Campus. However, sitting in my room a few hours before slichot were to begin, I was still uncertain as to where I should pray. A part of me felt it was only proper to say slichot with my University. But a stronger part of me wanted to pray elsewhere. An hour later, I found myself heading towards to a minyan I had found through Facebook at a stranger’s apartment in the Upper West Side.
I knew very few people in the room where I prayed that night. I had no apparent connection with most of them, except of course, that we all came together to examine our actions and connect to God. And with those strangers I prayed with an intensity I hadn’t mustered in a long time.
This year, as I sat on the shuttle I thought back to that night. I tried to remember why I didn’t want to go to slichot in the Glueck Beit Midrash during my first year at Stern and understand why the feeling had carried over to my third year. At the time I thought it was because I was uncomfortable being one of the few women surrounded by a sea of men. But I knew this could no longer be what was holding me back from going and probably never was. I claimed praying in a place where I am not welcome to learn is far from appealing. But deep down I knew that wasn’t the reason either.
This year I realized that I don’t like saying slichot as a YU student. I didn’t want my slichot to be just another one of the many events I attended on a Yeshiva University campus. I didn’t want my prayers that night to be overly official or feel institutionalized. I wanted to get away from the official YU logo and the protection of structured Judaism it provides.
So I walked ten minutes past the Beit Midrash to a small minyan in the Heights where I barely knew anyone. The room where I stood was old and small, a far cry from the beautiful Beit Midrash. The singing at this minyan was probably not as melodious as President Joel’s chazzanut. And I understood why I wanted to pray here. I wanted to be somewhere a little less official and perfect; I wanted to feel a little uncomfortable and vulnerable as I attempted to speak to God. I didn’t want to stand before God as part of the YU community. I wanted to join with strangers and stand before him far more simply, as brothers and sisters, children of God.
I’m not sure what to make of this experience. I generally love being a part of YU and find it thrilling to attend a mission-driven university. I chose to study at Stern College because I want to be in an institution that provides me with learning opportunities and religious experiences. Sitting in Lamport auditorium for University wide events in honor of Yom HaShoah or Yom Ha’atzmaut are all moments that fill me with pride. But slichot night is a moment when I don’t want to be a part of the community; I want to pray to God alone. And YU gives me the freedom to do just that.
I didn’t feel a communal responsibility to attend slichot that night because our community is large enough that none of us carry the burden of sustaining it. I think an often overlooked opportunity at YU is the freedom to explore religious life outside the University. We can choose to visit a variety of Jewish communities in New York City and explore our religious identities in a private fashion, with the knowledge that we have a strong Jewish Institution waiting for us when we return. I realize I didn’t need to torment myself about where to go for slichot. Praying with a small minyan in the Heights is taking advantage of the space YU gives me to explore my religiosity and seek different modes of connection to God. It is a unique opportunity I have as a student at YU.