Putting the ‘om’ into shalom



May 3, 2016

(A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Hillel College Guide magazine.)

University of Vermont students enjoy a free yoga class at UVM Hillel. Photo by Jamie Goldberg, UVM ’18.

Deadlines, coursework and carrying a heavy class load can be nerve-wracking and super demanding, so Hillels across the country are offering activities that help soothe students’ stress levels and counter their effects.

“We provide health and wellness support so that [students] can be more well-rounded individuals who are able to participate more fully in the crazy aspects of college,” says Sharon Silverman, assistant director at University of Vermont Hillel.

UVM Hillel offers two free yoga classes per week (mats provided), featuring styles ranging from hatha to “funky flow” and instruction that always incorporates Jewish values. “We’re about meeting students where they are and recognizing the needs we can fill,” says Silverman.

Cydney Williams, 21, a senior at UVM, teaches hatha, acro yoga, Thai massage and meditation. She says her classes offer students a break in their day and time to reflect during hectic schedules by creating “a moment of stillness in a week.”

Jessica Kronis, executive director at Hillel Florida International University, has a dance, yoga and pilates background. She incorporates a “holistic approach into everything that I do,” she says.

New in her role, Kronis hopes to offer “a group that meets regularly with thematic meditation and yoga,” to foster an environment that helps students “feed your soul, your body and your brain with organic Jewish principles.”

“Holistic and healthy Jewish living is about being mindful in everything we do,” she explains, “and my job is listening to students to understand where they want to explore that and provide a variety of answers so they can make meaning of it themselves.”

At the Hillel serving Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, meanwhile, the creation of YAM (yoga and meditation) programming almost five years ago grew out of student interest in “how their Jewish practice and heritage connects to their overall sense of wellness and balance,” says executive director Marshall Einhorn.

Classes, which number about 10 to 15 per week, take place in the naturally lit, open space of Hillel’s chapel; yoga blocks, blankets and mats are provided. The special Jewish-inspired class — offered on Friday afternoons or as “ShalOM” on Saturdays “to get people into the Shabbat mindset,” says Einhorn — won a New Initiatives award from Brown.  The Hillel also hosts a yogi-in-residence each semester and features a weekly Torah-inspired contemplative meditation practice.

Carly Margolis, 20, a senior at Brown, teaches pre-Shabbat gentle yoga at Hillel. She sees the value that yoga offers as a moving mediation, not just a physical workout.

“People got here because they have a lot of inner discipline and sometimes self-criticism, and to have one space on the campus that’s not about achieving and not meeting standards — internal or external,” is incredibly beneficial for students, she says.

Hillel at the University of Southern California’s annual art exhibit this year focused on health, self-care and wellness, and featured an interactive mandala coloring wall. Large black and white images were mounted to the walls for students to fill in with any colors they chose. “Adult coloring books have become very popular stress relievers for many people and the gallery wanted to highlight one way that students can destress from the academic and social pressures of college,” says Alison Levine, associate director for USC Hillel.

Hillels offer creative and relaxing study break options during finals season for stressed out students. Thanks to the initiative of a student board member last spring, Hillel at Boston University now partners with Dog B.O.N.E.S. of Massachusetts to bring in therapy dogs for students to play with at the end of every semester. The events are open to the entire university, and last fall brought 600 students to Hillel. This month, Hillel Wellness at the University of Pennsylvania brought in therapy dogs as well, and also offered free massages for students.

Don’t see any adult coloring books or yoga classes offered at your Hillel? Just ask. They’re all about meeting students where they are, even when that means down on the mat.

University of Southern California students David Reich ’16 and Valerie Lopez ’19 destress at Hillel’s “L’Briyut: To Your Health” art exhibit.

University of Pennsylvania students receive free massages at Penn Hillel during finals week.

Boston University student plays with a therapy dog at BU Hillel.