Jewish people have fasted for thousands of years for many different reasons. The most recent fast in the Jewish faith was the Taanit Esther (the fast of Esther) on March 16 to commemorate the heroic acts of Queen Esther in the story of Purim. The University of Mary Washington’s Hillel Center took this opportunity to fast not only for the Purim holiday but also to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Fasting is an effective approach to connecting to one’s spirituality and strengthening one’s faith, and it is also a way to show your support to a cause. In reference to fasting, Rabbi Menachem Sherman, the director of UMW Hillel said, “I am taking away worldly things and trying to connect to something that’s not physical, so that means no food or water.”
Fasting doesn’t have to be exclusively religious, either. It also works as a method of garnering a sense of togetherness and community among a group of people. This sense of community can be applied in many ways: a form of protest, to gain spirituality or to unify people behind a common goal.
It’s important to note that while fasting is a great way to bring people together, it should be practiced with caution. Senior English major and Hillel Club President Haley Schnitzer reminds people to be careful if they choose to fast.
“There’s always the caveat that you should not fast if it is a detriment to your health,” she said. “If there is someone that has an eating disorder, or has problems with their blood sugar or whatever reason, they should not fast.”
Outside of physical health problems, if a fast is getting in the way of your schooling or mental health, it might not be the best option for you. I have had at least one instance of getting a headache from fasting during a school day which ultimately led to me not getting my work done, so it’s important to be cautious. Barring any health conditions that may make it dangerous for you, fasting can be a powerful way to take a stance.
According to Sherman, fasting is a way for people who are not actively in Ukraine to support Ukraine through a meaningful gesture. “We have four Hillels in Ukraine, one of which got hit with a bomb, so they’ve really been struggling,” he said.
The international connections through Hillel create a sense of community worldwide, which makes tragedy abroad seem closer to home. “We [the Hillel community] had a student in Ukraine who was killed in the line of duty a few days ago, so Hillel really wanted to be able to bring people together,” Sherman said.
In addition, fasting can be seen as an act of support for those who are struggling and we can only help so much. “To take something that has religious significance, like a fast day, and do it in solidarity was the main intent,” said Sherman. “To try to feel the pain of Jews across the world that we can’t necessarily feel because we’re not in the line of fire.”
The practice of fasting has been used by many different religions and has differing purposes. Mahatma Gandhi fasted multiple times, and his most notorious fast was to protest British support of a new Indian Constitution that would separate the Indian electorate by caste. Additionally, Muslims fast during Ramadan for 29-30 days to practice self-restraint and self-reflection—to cleanse the soul and develop empathy for those who are less fortunate.
Practicing fasting has had a positive effect on Sherman’s life. “Overall, fast days greatly improve my outlook on what’s important, and sometimes stripping away physical things is a good way to remind oneself of what’s important,” he said.
Fasting has had a positive effect on my life, too. Growing up as a Jewish person sometimes led me to feel ostracized because I didn’t know any other Jewish people outside of my family. To feel represented and seen by people who follow the same culture by doing things like celebrating holidays and fasting together is a truly invaluable sense of connection to have. I also realized that once your fast does end, your food tastes better and your drinks are a little sweeter—it’s rewarding, and it’s worth a try.
Another reason fasting is such an applicable practice is that not every student at the University of Mary Washington can afford to donate money to Ukraine. Schnitzer spoke about how fasting is a benevolent alternative to donating money.
“I think that obviously money is the biggest thing that they [Ukranians] can benefit from right now, but not everyone can provide money right now,” said Schnitzer. “So, I think fasting is a way that people can help for free.”
When discussing the purpose of fasting, Schnitzer said, “the intended effect is just to show commitment and hope that enough people banded together. It produces a great outcome.”
Junior history major and Hillel Club member Zack Steinbaum also thinks that fasting for Ukraine helps to bring about solidarity. “To know that we [Hillel] stretch out all the way to Ukraine just gives us solidarity,” said Steinbaum. “And we’re able to connect to Ukraine. At least I am able to connect to Ukraine a lot better.”
This shows that the fast does not have to be a solely religious thing; a fast can also be a means to unify people together. “I’m not a terribly religious person,” said Steinbaum. “So for me, I don’t feel any strong connection to the fast other than fasting to show others that I’m with them, that I’m doing this with them. But for me, it doesn’t have to have any central religious importance.”
That’s where I find the beauty in it. If you want to help at all, in any way, you can fast in solidarity at the very least. And you don’t have to do it during Ramadan, or to protest a caste system or during Taanit Esther. You can fast just to show support for whatever you believe in.