Hillel International hosted over 2,000 high school students and parents at Hillel International’s first-ever virtual college fair this weekend, offering a safe alternative to traditional in-person college fairs that have been cancelled as North American continues to battle the resurging pandemic. By going virtual, Hillel gave prospective students the opportunity to engage with hundreds of colleges from across North America — a first, and an experience students and parents say they found tremendously valuable.
“High school students would normally be touring college campuses this fall, meeting Hillel students and professionals and learning about Jewish life on campus, but that’s largely impossible this year because of the pandemic,” Hillel International President and CEO Adam Lehman said. “We created Hillel’s first-ever virtual College Fair to provide students a unique and convenient way to explore the diversity of Jewish life on campus.”
In addition to giving students the opportunity to meet with staff and current college students from specific campuses, the fair featured special sessions where students could meet with a college admissions counselor, learn about programs and scholarships in Israel with Masa Israel Journey, and give students an overview on Jewish Greek life on campus.
The fair kicked off Saturday with an opening panel of students discussing the role of Jewish life on campus, what factors to consider when choosing a school, and Jewish identity on campus.
“Something I think is really important is finding the school that has the Jewish experience that you want,” Chloe Laverson, a senior at University of Utah and the student president of Hillel for Utah, said during the kickoff, which was also streamed live on Hillel International’s Facebook page. “I had never thought going into college that being part of Jewish life on campus would be important to me, but it truly is now the reason I’m still in college and the reason I have such incredible friends.”
Following Saturday’s kickoff, the fair then branched out to include hundreds of sessions hosted individually by hundreds of different campus Hillels in both the US and Canada. At each of the events, students, parents, grandparents and high school counselors had their questions answered live by college students and Hillel professionals.
Michael Simon, Director of Northwestern University Hillel, said the virtual fair was a unique opportunity to take advantage of the online nature of 2020.
“It was a great way of taking the opportunity of the virtual moment we’re in and doing something that was really accessible for lots and lots of students,” Simon said. “It really enabled us to use the best resources we have—our current students— to tell their stories.”
Simon also said he was excited by the level of engagement high school students showed, as over 100 students and parents attended the two sessions hosted by Northwestern Hillel.
“Students got a lot of general information about the college and about Hillel, but also real world advice and experiences from our students that other college fairs don’t always give,” said
Maqueline Weiss, the student board president of Elon University Hillel. “It was a great way to see all of the colleges in a super quick and convenient manner. And that was fantastic.”
The event was also a chance for parents to learn more about Jewish life on campus and connect with current Jewish college parents about their experiences.
Jill Epstien, the chair of the Board of Directors at Pennsylvania State University Hillel, shared her perspective in a session for parents. “To me the passion of Hillel is really about a student finding their way of being Jewish on their own—whatever that means to them,” Epstein told parents. “As a parent, I wanted to bring my children to Hillel and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ But this is the time you really have to allow them to learn what it’s like to be not just on their own, but also to find out what being Jewish means to them.”
Jodi, a mother of a high school senior from New York who was able to attend 5 different sessions, said she enjoyed hearing Hillel from students like Weiss about why they choose to be part of Hillel.
“The kids have been great. I loved listening to them, they were helpful, informative and enthusiastic,” she said. “I was also curious about what Hillel and the universities are doing to respond to antisemitism and support a positive Jewish experience. All the schools addressed that in a really good way.”
Penn State junior Jason Epstein, whose mom spoke to parents during the college fair, says he was focused on letting high schoolers know the instrumental role Hillel has played in his college experience. Epstein said that on a campus with over 40,000 undergraduates, Hillel offers a close-knit community.
“Hillel was really helpful in finding my first group of friends and really connecting with people, because I knew I instantly had a connection before even having to talk to anyone,” Epstein shared with prospective students. “When you go to a big school it can be pretty scary because it feels like you’re just a number, but knowing you have a community that you’ll instantly be accepted into is really comforting.”
Above all, Epstein reminded students that Hillel is a warm environment you can always rely on.
“I would say Hillel is a bowl of matzo ball soup,” Epstein said. “It is comfort food.”