This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.
HALIFAX — Spring might be hitting the rest of Canada, but in Halifax, snow banks still line the streets, temperatures remain below zero – and colds are still rampant.
Atlantic Hillel in Halifax knows that when students are sick, it can take all their energy just to get out of bed, let alone make themselves comfort food.
That’s why Hillel created a “chicken soup hotline.”
“It’s Jewish penicillin,” says Tamar Ellis, student body president of Atlantic Hillel. She’s the one who cooks the soup, from scratch – “I don’t like soup mixes,” Ellis says. The soup is all kosher: mostly chicken, with a vegetable option for vegetarians.
It’s kept frozen at Hillel House, the organization’s homey centre near Dalhousie University and delivered directly to sick students’ doors within 24 hours of an email request.
“A lot of students that come to Dal come from out of town, so it’s a nice way to make them feel a little at home,” says Ellis.
The program started in the 2013-14 school year when Hillel held a big Shabbat dinner and had a lot of soup left over afterward. Atlantic Hillel hosts weekly Shabbat dinners, as well as events such as film screenings and talks.
“We were freezing it, and the previous Hillel director thought it would be a good idea to give it out to sick students,” says Ellis.
By the end of the term, all the soup was gone. So Arielle Branitsky, director of Jewish student life for the Atlantic region of Hillel Canada, decided to continue the program this school year.
“Right now, we’re only set up for a really small demand,” says Branitsky, who delivers the soup when Ellis isn’t able to. So far this school year, they’ve only had a handful of requests, but Branitsky wants to expand the hotline.
“What I’d like to see is just making sure more students know it’s available to them,” she says.
This winter the hotline was only publicized through the Hillel email newsletter, which reaches about 370 people, some of whom aren’t students any more. When there’s room in the Hillel budget, though, Branitsky wants to print magnets with the chicken soup hotline information and give them out on campus.
“And then, ideally, every fridge is sitting there with a reminder that they can call Hillel for some chicken soup.”
Branitsky is modelling the program after a similar hotline at Western University in London, Ont. The idea of a “Jewish penicillin hotline” was first conceived by the University of Michigan Hillel and caught on across the United States.
“It’s not only beneficial to the students, but it’s a good reminder to the parents that we’re here, and that we’re doing good things for their kids. As a non-profit organization, you need your community to know you’re working for them,” Branitsky says.
“I had a student [who had received soup] come up to me last term and say, ‘I have to give you a hug on behalf of my mother.’
“It’s so Jewish in nature,” Branitsky says, laughing.
Halifax has the biggest concentration of Jewish students in the Maritimes, but that still isn’t very many – only around 300, Branitsky estimates.
“We’re doing this as a service for the student community, and we recognize that in this area, there isn’t a huge Jewish population,” she says.
Regardless of the number of students using it, Hillel and its programming are still important, Ellis says.
“It’s nice for Jewish students to have something that they can identify with… meeting other Jewish people, and educating non-Jewish students on campus about what we do.”
Elyse Holmes, a Dalhousie student living in residence, experienced the chicken soup hotline first hand when she had a bad cold earlier this winter. She was all smiles – and stuffed nose – when Branitsky delivered her soup.
“I was feeling really crappy, and when you’re feeling that way, you definitely don’t want to go out and find your own soup,” Holmes said. “So it’s nice to have it delivered and have it homemade.”
Sick students in Halifax can email firstname.lastname@example.org to request soup, or to get involved with Hillel.
Pictured above: Elyse Holmes, left, a Dalhousie University student living in residence, receives much-needed chicken soup from Arielle Branitsky, director of Jewish Student Life for the Atlantic Region of Hillel Canada, as part of Atlantic Hillel’s “chicken soup hotline” program for sick students.