Just before sunset on May 14, Rachel Klein of Hillels of Westchester crammed balloons, congratulatory signs, graduation cords and handmade mezuzot into her Volvo.
The coronavirus may have robbed her graduating seniors of the usual pomp and circumstance, but Klein could still bring the party to them — while practicing social distance.
She drove 387 miles over the course of three days to complete her delivery route, venturing from the suburbs of Connecticut to the bustling streets of New York City. Klein used a custom Google map, created to pinpoint the homes of 14 graduates from campuses served by Hillels of Westchester.
The seniors had no idea she was coming.
When she arrived at each home, Klein put on protective gear and dropped the gifts near the door. She then hurried back to her car and called each student to let them know she was outside.
One of the seniors told Klein this surprise the best part of her year.
“We’re losing great leaders, but the rest of the world is gaining some extraordinary young adults,” Klein said. “I didn’t want them to feel isolated on graduation, and this was the least I could do. “
Like Klein’s students, scores of seniors will begin post-college life without crossing a stage to receive their college diplomas. To acknowledge their achievements in the age of coronavirus, Hillels across the nation have reimagined their senior send-offs.
Over the past few weeks, mailing old-fashioned, handwritten letters has made a come back as Hillel professionals at campuses such as University of Georgia, Brown University and Carnegie Mellon University strive to honor seniors during a time of social isolation.
Ariel Walovitch, who serves as director of engagement at Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, said each of the 20 letters she wrote to her students included a photo that captured a memory from their time on campus.
“They’ve had everything taken away from them — graduation, formals, award ceremonies,” Walovitch said. “These letters are something for our students to cherish, reminding them what makes them special and how they’re going to bring those qualities into the real world.”
One of her letters was delivered to Steven Field, a political science major. The 22-year-old immediately messaged Walovitch after reading the letter, saying: “Your belief in me inspired and motivated me to always do more and help others, and I am so grateful.”
At Hillel at Stanford University, Hillel professionals honored their graduates with a Zoom seder on Pesach Sheni, a make-up holiday for those who were unable to observe the mitzvah of Passover in biblical times.
“People experiencing life-cycle moments like college graduation feel the pain of this separation the most,” said Rabbi Evelyn Baz of Hillel at Stanford. “There’s a certain symbolism in meeting on this make-up date.”
A focal point of the virtual seder was a yearbook-like Haggadah, featuring reflections from generations of Stanford undergraduates who endured life-threatening events on campus. One of the pages included a student’s letter to his father during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
For graduating seniors like Lizzie Frankel, who is finishing the academic year in Denver, these stories of the past taught her lessons about how to maintain relationships from afar.
“I've been thinking about how to best keep in touch with the Stanford people I consider family, and I was already hoping to stay involved with my Hillel family virtually after graduation,” Frankel, 22, said. “This seder provided an earlier transition into sustaining meaningful connections. Even over Zoom, I could feel my Hillel family’s warmth.”
The 18 graduating seniors involved with Hillel of Northern Nevada also celebrated their graduation over Zoom, organized by Hillel director Atty Garfinkel-Berry.
During the call, attendees told stories from their time in college and were inducted into the Hillel alumni association. They ended with a toast to their accomplishments.
“Creating Jewish life on campus begins the moment a student gets their acceptance letter straight through the day they get their diploma,” Garfinkel-Berry said. “It’s our responsibility to provide closure on this chapter so they can, unencumbered, step into the next chapter.”
Dionna Dash contributed to this story.