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‘No one is alone’

Hillels serve Jewish students with free food, online programming during coronavirus pandemic
by Shana Medel |Mar 16, 2020|Comments

Hillels stretching from California to Russia are reimagining the Hillel playbook in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

Amid campus closures and public gathering restrictions, Hillels are providing to-go meals for students, many of whom are food insecure, and using online platforms to organize Jewish programming. 

As a precautionary measure, dozens of Hillels canceled their traditional Shabbat celebrations last weekend. The disruption encouraged them to provide students with the necessary resources to observe Shabbat from the comfort of their own homes.

North Carolina Hillel invited students to a virtual candle lighting session over Facebook Live. Central Florida Hillel recited Kiddush and Hamotzi over Facebook Live. Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis sang “L’cha Dodi” and “Ahavat Olam” on Facebook Live.

“Right now, it’s more important than ever to be visible and accessible for students so that no one is alone,” said Tamara Zischuk, director of student engagement at North Carolina Hillel. “The Jewish community is always the first place I turn to when I feel alone or am in need of support, so it feels natural that Hillels are here supporting our students — even though it’s now online instead of in-person.”

Hillel professionals also used social media to deliver Divrei Torah on Parashat Ki Tisa. The Torah portion recounts the incident of the golden calf, worshipped by the Israelites while Moses is with God atop Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights.

Izzy Salant, Hillel International Springboard Fellow at University of California, Los Angeles Hillel, drew correlations between the Israelites’ fears over the absence of Moses and worldwide panic over the coronavirus.

“The story teaches us that even in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty, we need to have faith and know that things will work out,” Salant said over Facebook Live. “I want to reassure everyone that we’re all here for you and that we’re all here to make sure that everyone is able to get through this.”

     

In addition to offering the elements of a Shabbat service online, Hillels also provided their students with free meals.

“Recognizing food insecurity as a challenge facing our campus communities, we identified steps we could realistically take to lessen that burden on our students,” said Eric Leiderman, a Hillel International Springboard Fellow at Hillel Milwaukee

Approximately 20% to 33% of students at four-year universities experience food insecurity, according to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. The Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

Hillel Milwaukee opened its pantry, offering students non-perishables and fresh produce originally intended for Shabbat dinner. They walked away with bags of apples, carrots and other food items.



University of Michigan Hillel also provided more than 400 students with pre-packaged meals.

“Our students’ lives have been massively uprooted in unprecedented ways over the past week,” said Tara Levy, manager of leadership and programming at Michigan Hillel. “Continuing to provide them with support, Jewish connection and community is our main goal as we adapt to the developing needs of our scattered campus community.”

To serve as a virtual home away from home on weekdays, Hillel students and professionals are adapting their regularly scheduled programming.

no one is alone 2Numerous Hillels, including Hillel at Baruch College, are organizing coffee conversations and the 10-week Jewish Learning Fellowship over platforms such as Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts.

“Our whole jobs are interacting with students,” said Yael Brenner, assistant director of Baruch Hillel. “Over the past few days, we’ve figured out ways to continue to interact with students. Being online, we’re able to offer programs to everyone.”

At Wellesley College Hillel, students will begin using Zoom to attend a weekly introduction class on Judaism. They can also use the platform from 8 p.m. - 11 p.m. to complete homework and spend time with friends — activities they normally do each night in the Hillel space.

“Zoom is a place to escape all the crazy and go back to our community,” said Nechama Huba, who serves as Shabbat chair at Wellesley Hillel.

George Washington University Hillel is also connecting its students to a virtual Jewish community by calling them. Rabbi Daniel Novick, assistant director of GW Hillel, told the media outlet DCist that his four-person staff is calling each of the 1,700 Jewish students within their network over the next few weeks.

“Many college students haven’t experienced anything like this before,” Novick said. “A lot of synagogues are doing live streaming — we’re actually sending out weekly Shabbat resources to connect students to those services.”

To help students with their mental and physical health, Seth Reder of University of Colorado Boulder Hillel created “Shred w/ Seth,” a series of exercise videos taught by Reder. 

“During these times, it is so important for us to keep our bodies and minds active,” Reder said. “I’m excited to see where this virtual journey can lead us, and I hope that these exercise videos can provide a sliver of normalcy to our lives through daily health, wellness and motivation.”



Northeastern University Hillel is also hosting virtual wellness events, including 30-minute yoga sessions.

“The biggest thing Hillel has going for it is community. The most important thing is we keep that community going,” said Danny Dubin, a rabbinic intern at Northeastern University Hillel. “Our goal is making sure people are feeling sustained with their community and spiritual connections.”

Participants of Hillel CASE are engaging in “Brain Labs,” online games between Jewish students and young adults in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The program is intended to prepare them for Hillel Intellectual Wars, a springtime competition involving Jewish trivia, history and geography.

To address financial stresses from the coronavirus pandemic, Columbia University/Barnard College Hillel created an emergency fund. Students in need are eligible for a stipend of up to $250.

University of Pennsylvania Hillel started a fund to support workers laid off from their positions at Falk Dining Commons, the kosher dining area on campus. In a Facebook post, Penn Hillel commended the employees, many of whom have served meals “with a warm smile” to Hillel students for over a decade.

The post also said: “To the Staff of Falk Dining, our message is clear: You are our family and we are here for you. We want to support you and advocate for you in any way we can. We have been receiving calls nonstop from students, telling us how much they care about you and asking how they can help.”

Hillel professionals have also written thought leadership pieces about navigating life during a period of social distancing. Josh Feldman, vice president of leadership development and the Springboard Fellowship at Hillel International, provided nine tips in Hillel News to help readers combat feelings of isolation, such as writing letters to loved ones and starting a virtual reading group.

Rabbi Rebecca Blady, executive director at Hillel Germany, authored a piece for eJewish Philanthropy on celebrating Passover during a time of social isolation. She wrote, “We shouldn’t think that simply because we cannot be a part of the greater, physical gathering of Jewish people, that our rituals, our practices, our celebrations are not legitimate.” 

Hillel students have also taken their own steps to foster Jewish community online. Clark University student Ari Hoffman created Zoom University Hillel, a Facebook group for students to discuss Judaism, post memes and meet others while they’re stuck at home. There are more than 10,000 members.

“I think going online will be hard for everyone,” Hoffman said. “Having to be away from clubs they find important to them will just add to this difficult time. So, having a group like this might help some.”

The current emergency led Hillel International to launch Hillel@Home on March 16. The digital platform will provide students with compelling content, focusing on wellness and spirituality, as well as a sense of Jewish community during this period. Guest speakers will include former NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire and Comedy Central executive Tara Schuster.

“As our professionals and students adjust to a ‘new normal,’ we are committed to continuing to provide students the unique and meaningful experiences they count on from Hillel through our new Hillel@Home platform,” said Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International. “Offering live events, virtual travel, interactive learning and much more, Hillel@Home enables us to meet students where they are, and to ease the disruption and isolation they’re experiencing through compelling new forms of Jewish community experiences.”

Monica Sager contributed to this story.


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  • CU Boulder Hillel
  • North Carolina Hillel
  • Clark University Hillel
  • GW Hillel
  • Baruch College Hillel
  • Central Florida Hillel
  • WashU Hillel
  • UCLA Hillel
  • Hillel Milwaukee




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