Hillel professionals offer virtual one-on-one support, pastoral care for students during coronavirus crisis



April 8, 2020

Just minutes before Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover, Rabbi Alex Weissman of Brown University-RISD Hillel received a frantic message from a student.

Her grandmother was in the hospital, caught in the chasm between life and death. The coronavirus could take her away at any moment.

Her condition deteriorated on Monday. Unsure of how to make it through the rest of the day, she called Rabbi Weissman. He offered words of comfort and nuggets of Jewish wisdom to guide her through the uncharted territory of caring for a sick loved one from afar.

For Rabbi Weissman, answering a flood of texts and calls from concerned students has become the norm with the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

“One of the ways I think about being a rabbi and offering care is doing my best to channel God’s love in the world,” he said. “Being a vessel for that love in moments of isolation and confusion feels like a beautiful way to be of service to students.”

Amid the worsening pandemic, Rabbi Weissman is one of scores of Hillel professionals regularly engaging in one-on-one conversations with students, offering pastoral care for mourners, spiritual guidance and mental health advice.

With the disruptions of everyday life, texting has become a powerful tool for student engagement, said Rabbi Sandra Lawson of Elon University Hillel.

One student uses her as a sounding board when he needs to vent. Another shares her frustrations about being confined to her childhood home, an environment unconducive to studying.

“I can’t physically be there for students. I can’t hug them, take them out for lunch or go for a walk with them,” Rabbi Lawson said. “What I can do is listen and be a resource for them.”

The video-conferencing platform Zoom has also allowed Rabbi Lawson to touch base with students, many of whom are struggling with stress. During one of those calls, she played a video of stand-up comedian Dulcé Sloan after realizing the student needed a wholesome laugh.

“The student told me, ‘Thank you so much. I didn’t know I needed to laugh,’” Rabbi Lawson said. “We’re all trying very hard to figure out how to best support our students.” 

At University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, one of the 15 campuses served by North Carolina Hillel, Rabbi Melissa Simon is providing students with guidance on Jewish rituals around illness and death. During those conversations, she has discussed using Zoom or FaceTime to observe the mitzvot of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, and shiva, a weeklong period of mourning after a death.

“We’re trying to frame Jewish traditions for this time while honoring the most important commandment of preserving human life, pikuach nefesh,” she said.

One of the concerns voiced by students was practicing the Jewish value of honoring their parents. For some, that means staying away from home because their loved ones are at risk of contracting the virus.

Rabbi Simon said listening to students about the complex medical histories of their parents, some of whom have suffered from cancer or received organ transplants, was really striking.

“So much of what we do at Hillel is empowering students on their Jewish journeys,” Rabbi Simon. “In a situation like this, many of our students are worried they’re going to make a mistake. I’m trying to help them feel like the choices they’re making are Jewish choices.”

Rebecca Ruben, associate director of student wellness at University of Southern California Hillel, is offering telehealth services as students adjust to a “new normal” with the coronavirus.

“Most college students have not experienced this type of loss and change before,” Ruben said. “The extra support to weather these changes and adjust is helpful, even if telehealth is the only option.”

Ruben has adapted in-person counseling for virtual platforms to help students navigate the challenges of social isolation, such as feelings of disconnectedness and hopelessness. Nearly 10 students, many of whom were meeting with Ruben before USC closed, have been engaging in weekly, hourlong sessions with her online.

“It’s been important for students receiving mental health services at Hillel to continue to have the same outlet and support as they had on campus,” Ruben said. “While the reasons for coming to therapy may change as a result of coronavirus, the therapeutic relationship continues online.”

To help students overcome boredom and calm anxieties, Ruben is also using her background in clinical social work to organize wellness sessions every Sunday.

One of the common stressors for those who have spent weeks riding out the coronavirus in their childhood homes is regression, reverting to earlier stages of their development to cope with uncomfortable emotions.

“In college, many students were practicing their new skill of being autonomous adults,” Ruben said. “Now, they feel as if they’re stepping backwards.”

Following the epidemic, students may still be rattled from the experience when they return to campus. Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said Hillel International is preparing for a mental health crisis among students.

To address those needs, Columbia University/ Barnard College Hillel professionals created virtual support circles through WhatsApp messages and Zoom calls. Students will be grouped with others who share their struggles, such as coping with a coronavirus diagnosis and lacking motivation to complete schoolwork.

“This generation of students was already incredibly challenged by issues of mental health and wellness, and the crisis has already pushed many students into issues of anxiety and depression,” Lehman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’re finding pastoral needs are incredibly high among students and families.”