Hillel International Launches First “Winterfest” to Create New Learning Communities Amid January Pandemic Challenges



January 5, 2021

With many colleges and universities delaying the start of the spring semester to the end of January, or forced to continue substituting in-person classes with virtual learning, Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, is launching its first-ever Winterfest throughout January, connecting students through some 170 small-setting experiences at universities in nine countries to provide meaningful Jewish learning to students on and off campus while countering increasing social isolation during the pandemic’s intensifying second wave.

Winterfest aims to help students maintain and form new social connections and friendships at an especially challenging and isolating time while also providing substantive learning with peers. The novel program, made possible with support by the Maimonides Fund and Jim Joseph Foundation through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, is taking place in the U.S., Canada, Israel, France, Germany, Belarus, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine.

Hillel’s Vice President For Jewish Education Rabbi Benjamin Berger said the traditional college experience provides students with the opportunity to create formative personal connections while growing increasingly independent. But the pandemic is forcing many students to either remain at home, living in their childhood bedrooms, or to minimize physical engagement with peers for students remaining on campus.

“Many of the most meaningful experiences students have at Hillel are in smaller groups. With Winterfest, Hillel is building on the Jewish concept of a minyan – a gathering of 10 people with a specific purpose – to bring light and warmth to students during this dark time,” said Hillel President and CEO Adam Lehman.

Winterfest builds on Hillel International’s experiences over the past year of creating high-level content in broad-based learning venues despite the challenges of the pandemic, including the Hillel@Home online programming platform, Higher Holidays streaming programs, the Jewish Learning Fellowsdhip and Hillel’s Virtual College Fair.

“We learned from the work we did to support Jewish college community throughout this year and we found that activities where students could gather in cohorts, which met regularly, generated better attendance and interest than drop-in or one-off activities. This is what students are looking for and that is what Winterfest will provide,” Lehman added.

To shape Winterfest, Hillel is drawing on Jewish tradition and learning.

”The story of our namesake, Hillel the Elder, being brought in from the cold, snowy roof to be warmed by the hearth of the Beit Midrash (House of Learning) within speaks to the ways the rabbis imagined that Torah could warm the soul and the body,” Berger said. “With Hillel Winterfest, we can create cozy environments of learning that warm the soul, the mind and the body.”

Winterfest will offer a mix of local learning groups around specific campuses and areas as well as national learning groups for those looking to meet students from other colleges and universities. The classes are free and students will receive special Hillel swag and prizes, to help create a welcoming, communal environment.

The concept has already captured wide interest from Jewish students. More than 1,200 students worldwide have already registered for the free classes, and some are filled to capacity. Topics include:

“While this moment doesn’t allow students to be together in the ways they need and we wish they could be, we can still leverage the expertise we’ve built over the past year to create small groups that, even over Zoom, foster community and learning,” said Berger.