For Northwestern's Jewish population, Saturday is for football or fasting

    There are football fans that consider the sport a religion. This weekend, however, football and religion will collide for a sizeable portion of Wildcat students.

    Northwestern’s Jewish population will face this dilemma on Saturday, as the Michigan-Northwestern football game conflicts with Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement is considered the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is the Shabbat Shabbaton or “the Sabbath of all Sabbaths.” Jews fast from sundown to sundown and ask God for forgiveness for sins committed in the previous year.

    According to Michael Simon, the Executive Director of Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, the student body is between 15 and 20 percent Jewish. A substantial portion of Wildcat student supporters have a tough decision to make about Saturday: go to the game or observe Yom Kippur in its entirety?

    School of Communication junior Greg Uzelac is a member of this sizable Jewish contingent, and even though he isn’t a rabid football fan, he still understands how difficult this choice is for many people.

    “We’re kids in college,” Uzelac said. “This is a time where religion, custom, and culture clashes with social life, and, basically, parties and sex.”  

    For Uzelac, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, and no football game could  compromise the solemnity of the day. This concept of finding a way to make Judaism fit in one’s own life is a constant struggle for many Jews.

    “Judaism is not one of those very dogmatic, you’re going to burn in hell, type of religions,” Uzelac said. “And that’s really what has provided Jewish people with such a flexibility.”
    Simon said that Hillel plays an important role in helping support the religious considerations of the University’s Jewish students, and he wouldn’t tell students whether they should or should not to attend the game.

    “Choice is at the center of how students are expressing their identity,” Simon said. “And whether that’s your Jewish identity or other aspects of your identity, what we try to do is provide all different kinds of opportunities for you to express those choices.”

    For students who are directly involved in the game – for example, a player or a member of marching band – the conflict becomes much more difficult to resolve.

    “I'm not aware of any Jewish coaches or players, but that's not to say we don't have any. We obviously don't ask those types of questions on bio questionnaires, etc,” Michael Wolf, the Assistant Athletic Director in charge of communications for the football team, wrote in an email.

    This conflict isn't unprecedented in Northwestern sports history. Former Wildcat and novelist Adam Schell played linebacker for the Wildcats from 1988 to 1992 and had to choose between religious and athletic commitments on a number of occasions, losing his spot on special teams as a result.  

    Schell developed personal rules about which games and practices he would skip for Jewish holidays.

    “I have my whole life to be a Jew, and there will be more Yom Kippurs and more Rosh Hashanahs, and I just have this small sliver of my life where I am going to be an athlete on a football team,” he said. While conflicted, Schell said he always had the support of his family and in particular his father, who is a Holocaust survivor and a Rabbi.

    For students in the Northwestern University Marching Band, home games mean a long day at Ryan Field. For Jewish band members like School of Communication sophomore and sousaphone player Jason Lederman, this scheduling poses a significant conflict. Even though the rest of the band will leave for Ryan Field at 2 p.m., Lederman will leave campus at 6:30 p.m., just in time for the halftime show.

    Lederman plans to break his fast early. “I have to respect my own personal beliefs but I have an obligation to the band and we have been working on the halftime show for a month,” he said. “I have to be there."

    Yom Kippur ends at 7:04 p.m. this Saturday, when three stars become visible in the sky. And though kick-off isn't until 6 p.m., boisterous pregaming--and the solemn Jewish holiday--are all-day affairs. Jewish students who wish to observe Yom Kippur have to make a choice.

    Schell faced something similar when he decided to skip practice roughly 20 years ago: “At the time, I felt, as a Jew, I needed to stand for something.”


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