On Sept. 16, a Community Service Officer (CSO) interrupted Yom Kippur services in the Powerhouse after a miscommunication over the booking of the space with the DQ, one of the college’s a capella groups, prompting alarm about the incident and the Amherst College Police Department’s (ACPD) role in it.
Yom Kippur, known as the holiest day of the year in Judaism, completes the 10-day period known as the High Holy Days. The holiday is traditionally observed through rigorous prayer, repentance and a 24-hour fast as Jews seek to atone the past year of sins. Many Jews who are otherwise secular attend High Holy Day services, in large part because of the days’ outsize importance.
Rumors quickly spread that the DQ, which had the space booked at the time, had called the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) to remove Hillel — the largest Jewish affinity group on campus, which was in charge of holding the service for around 40 students — from the Powerhouse.
Both groups, however, noted that the situation was a misunderstanding and that the rumors were exaggerated, with no ill intent on the part of the DQ.
According to Javier Londono ’23, a member of DQ, the group had the Powerhouse booked at the same time that the Yom Kippur services were happening due to issues with the virtual booking system, which prevented Hillel from booking the full time slot that they thought they had. The DQ went to ACPD to confirm their booking after seeing the ongoing services, and, though the virtual booking system showed that they had the space reserved, they asked ACPD not to interrupt the services despite the dispatcher’s suggestion to do so.
Ultimately, the group “turned to [a] CSO to ask the service how long they would run over to see if we should push auditions back or find a new space.” The CSO, in turn, interrupted Rabbi Bruce Seltzer in his sermon.
“The interruption of the service was a genuine mistake and we, the DQ, are deeply sorry about it,” Londono said. “If we had been made aware that [Hillel] would need the space until 9 p.m., we would have found a new space immediately and would have avoided the interruption.”
Mason Quintero ’23, president of Hillel, confirmed most of Londono’s story, but lamented the “much bigger issue of people not understanding the significance of the holy days in Judaism.”
“The incident this week was a misunderstanding. We didn't book the Powerhouse for as long as we intended to. The DQ didn't know what to do, and my understanding is they tried to stop the CSO from interrupting services,” Quintero said. “Interrupting services was annoying, but I don't think there was any ill will and would not have happened if people knew how important these days are to Jews.”
Quintero specifically criticized how a number of important school-wide events were set on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including a mandatory Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Budgetary Committee meeting on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and a set of AAS Senate elections on the day of Yom Kippur. Both events were eventually moved to accommodate the holidays, but only shortly before they were originally scheduled.
Other members of Hillel echoed the sentiments. One member, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the rumors, noted that “I think this was more a crime of ignorance than malice, but it's still frustrating, and it interrupted the time when I feel closest to God.”
Another member, who also asked to remain anonymous, pointed to the pernicious mental effects that arose from the incident. “There seems to be no ill intent on the part of the student group who contacted the CSO, but the disruption of services from an employee of ACPD struck fear in many students given the rise in antisemitic hate crimes,” they said.
When asked about the incident, Chief of Police John Carter emphasized that it was not a police officer that interrupted the service, and that they hope to avoid similar situations in the future.
“Our understanding at this time is that there was a scheduling mistake. A Community Service Officer, not a police officer, spoke with Rabbi Seltzer and the service continued,” he said. “However, we're in the process of gathering more information so that we can hopefully avoid this occurring again. I am in contact with Rabbi Seltzer and will keep him informed of what I learn.”
Looking forward, Quintero hopes that this incident will allow non-Jewish community members to be more aware of the significance of these Jewish holidays.
“I want people to really understand that for many Jews these holidays are the only time they connect religiously to the Jewish culture,” he said. “I challenge students to think about what it would be like to have classes on Christmas, Easter, or whatever their holiest days are depending on religion. What it would feel like to be reprimanded for missing a meeting in order to celebrate a tradition they have been celebrating their whole lives.”