Lisa Motenko is the program director at UC Berkeley Hillel. She’s also the campus point person for Repair the World. With Jewish volunteer credentials like these, it’s no surprise that, when the high holidays rolled around last year, Lisa was ready to transform them into a season of service.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur add up to one of the most important week and a half stretches in the Jewish calendar. Known as the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), they offer a time for spiritual and personal reflection and repentance. Thinking about this, Lisa got the great idea to create opportunities for Berkeley’s students to volunteer every weekday of those 10 days, and also created the space for students to volunteer on Yom Kippur itself.

Below, Lisa tells Repair the World how the days of awe and volunteering went, the deep impact it had on students, and their plans for this year.

How did the program come about?
I was brainstorming with the director of Berkeley’s Hillel about organizing an alternative to the traditional Yom Kippur service. We decided that we would offer traditional services, and also an opportunity for students to head to a soup kitchen that day. That program got me thinking about how the 10 days after Rosh Hashanah are really important – they are the time when the book of life is still open, before it is shut on Yom Kippur. And I just thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we volunteered during those days?

So I contacted some organizations nearby, and we ended up working with a women’s shelter in Berkeley, serving dinner 3 of the days and playing with the kids who lived there another 2 nights. Then on Yom Kippur, we had about 10 people who came and fasted while serving people food at a soup kitchen in San Francisco. It was an incredible day.

It sounds like it!
On Yom Kippur we did a formal learning. We read the part of Isaiah that talks about what fasting really means, and then we went and served food for a few hours. The students got to walk around and talk to the customers, and many of them openly shared that it was Yom Kippur and talked about why they were doing this. Afterward, we discussed what we did and met with a representative from the organization and reflected about why it was meaningful to serve others on Yom Kippur – especially serving food while fasting. People really connected to that. Several of the participants said that it was the most meaningful Yom Kippur experience they had ever had.

Why do you think the impact was so powerful?
I think it made people think. A lot of the time you’re just sitting there in services and feeling quite passive, but this was an active experience. For a lot of the students, this was the first time they had thought about Judaism as being connected to ethics as well as traditions and rituals. Also, something about fasting and seving other people food really helped the students reflect on the value of food and nourishment in a different way. For lots of students, the fast was more meaningful to them than it had been in the past.

Are you offering the high holiday service program again this year?
We are. Last year we had about 40 people join in over the course of the week and on Yom Kippur. This year, we hope to keep spreading the connection between the high holidays and service to even more students.

To learn more about UC Berkeley Hillel’s high holiday volunteer program, or find out how to start something similar on your campus, contact Lisa at: lisa [@] berkeleyhillel.org.