After growing up in a quaint seaside town with few Jewish residents, Lindsay Zimble knew she wanted to leave her hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts to attend college in a city with a thriving Jewish population. The high school senior searched for weeks, scrolling through various campus Hillels’ websites and Instagram pages before finally settling on University of Delaware.
However, after committing to the school’s nursing program, Zimble realized she had many lingering questions about UD Hillel, fearing that her identity as a Reform Jew would prevent her from fully participating in Hillel events.
“Initially, I was worried that I wouldn’t be ‘Jewish enough’ and that everyone who was active in Hillel would go to every service and event, making those things seem mandatory,” she said.
Zimble most likely would’ve had an answer if her UD campus tour wasn’t canceled because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. With safety restrictions now preventing students from physically touring college campuses, many high school seniors share Zimble’s uncertainty about what to expect from Jewish college life.
Hillel International and BBYO, the leading pluralistic Jewish teen movement, are remedying this lack of access through a historic partnership. This spring, more than 40 Hillels across the country are organizing virtual campus visits for high school juniors and seniors, giving students and their families a chance to discover Jewish opportunities on campus and ask general college life questions, such as declaring majors and finding roommates.
At UD Hillel’s virtual visit, two current student leaders began with a presentation about involvement, focusing mainly on Freshmen Fest. This orientation week event, open only to first years, allows students to move in early and meet the rest of their Hillel class. Last year, about 150 students attended.
In the following question and answer session, the 30 attendees, ranging widely in their Jewish identities from Orthodox to Reform, inquired about this signature bonding event and other ways they could form friendships with the 2,250 students UD Hillel serves. The session leaders also explained how to choose a major, gave time management tips, including making daily to-do lists, and revealed the best restaurants near campus, like El Diablo on Main Street, famous for its spicy burrito bowls.
For Zimble, this personalized interaction relieved her concerns about being “Jewish enough.”
“I learned that everyone is welcome at Hillel no matter their practices at home and I’m looking forward to attending events and holiday programs,” Zimble said.
Zimble’s mother, Darlene, was also watching the session. She said she was grateful that her daughter would feel comfortable in her Judaism at UD Hillel.
“I have fond memories of my sorority having a Passover seder together and it’s valuable to me that Lindsay can have comparable memories in college with Hillel,” Zimble said.
Out of 1,100 high school students across the U.S. surveyed by Cirkled In, an award-winning student portfolio platform, about 22% said the pandemic and the complications it presents in terms of safety and access to universities are making them rethink their intended college plans.
Sue Rexford, the director of college guidance at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said opportunities for high school students to interact directly with Hillel student leaders and staff are unique during these times of social distancing.
“For seniors trying to make their final decisions and juniors starting their college search, there is an added layer of stress and concern,” Rexford said. “Ideas such as the one that Hillel and BBYO are offering are a positive for those students at a time when they are looking for bright spots in this process. There are other colleges that are offering virtual tours and information sessions but the Hillel/BBYO partnership is unique because it is targeting a specific component of college life that is important to Jewish students.”
During the University of Maryland Hillel virtual visit, four Hillel engagement interns answered questions from more than 50 attendees concerning Jewish Greek life, social advocacy groups and Israel-based programming.
The mix of juniors and seniors, mostly from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, seemed eager to explore smaller communities within Hillel, especially because Maryland Hillel caters to about 4,000 Jewish students.
Michael Chernak, a senior at the Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy in New Jersey who committed to UMD to study physics, asked about a kosher meal plan offered through Maryland Hillel. Kosher meals are served at a separate dining hall.
“I was worried that I would feel isolated from non-Jewish students during lunch and dinner,” Chernak said. “Hearing that I wouldn’t eat alone because of the hundreds of students that use the kosher meal plan helped me feel better.”
Story written by Dionna Dash.