After a tenuous year plagued with a dark cloud of COVID-related thoughts and restrictions, Jewish students like me at the University of Central Florida are vaccinated and excited to return to UCF Hillel’s re-opened doors. The trials of the pandemic helped strengthen our Hillel’s community simply because we persevered through it.
Now equipped with a new director and staff members, UCD Hillel is ready to expand its Hillel Undergraduate Leadership Cohort of Knights (HULCK) program, introducing new and returning internships, fellowships, and committees, and empowering Jewish students to pursue their passions and expand their Jewish identity. Additionally, UCF Hillel is excited to begin a few new projects, including launching a Wellness Center where students have access to mental health counseling; starting a community garden; and reintroducing Fresh Fest, where incoming students get to meet other freshmen and experience an early look at Hillel and campus life.
During the 2020-2021 school year, UCF Hillel was a lifeline for the Jewish community. We ensured that students would still be able to see friends, eat kosher food and proudly express their Jewish identity on campus. As a member of HULCK, I helped Hillel conform to COVID guidelines when planning events, through evaluating how many students should be allowed at events, how we should set up tables, or if we even should hold an event due to the need for contact tracing. It was a struggle balancing the community’s priorities, adhering to the highest safety standards possible due to the nature of the pandemic, and remaining flexible enough within COVID protocols so programming could continue.
Establishing baseline guidelines of masking, social distancing, and outdoor-only events, UCF Hillel planned extensively during quarantine, tweaking our operations to prepare for the gradual reopening of student life during the 2020-2021 school year. Our Hillel erected a 3,600-square-foot tent where we held all events. Through the summer heat and the winter cold, and while allowing only two people per table at events for most of the year, the Hillel tent was busy with a constant stream of activities, a refreshing normalcy in a year of unknowns.
Weekly Noshes (themed meals) and Shabbat dinners, the return of paid learning fellowships, and seasonal programming for Jewish holidays became essential parts of many students’ schedules.
At one point in the Fall 2020 semester, UCF Hillel paused in-person operations for two weeks because a student attended an event and later tested positive for COVID. But instead of giving up during that time, Hillel pivoted to to-go meals and created virtual alternatives, providing a space to gather despite restrictions.
For the dozens of students who remained at home during the pandemic, or for students who returned to the Orlando area but remained extremely COVID cautious, Hillel expanded virtual programming with multiple events a month. From virtual cooking classes of traditional Jewish foods to Zoom services during the High Holidays, UCF Hillel raised the bar of virtual programming, allowing students to take on leadership roles, expand their relationships within the community, and retain some semblance of normalcy while staring at a screen.
The endeavor of sustaining Jewish life on campus was not solely on the shoulders of Hillel. YEHUDI Orlando’s director also serves as UCF Hillel’s Rabbi and the two organizations have a strong, mutually beneficial relationship. And our Hillel traditionally has no events on Tuesdays to give students the opportunity to attend Chabad of UCF’s weekly BBQ. The UCF Jewish community thrives as these three organizations collaborate to create better Jewish campus life and a stronger kehilah kedoshah (holy community).
There is a famous joke used to sum up the story of nearly every major Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” The COVID-19 pandemic tried to kill the Jewish community at UCF, but we won; and we have been feasting this entire year. Students have returned to their spiritual and communal homes at Hillel, and the stable presence of Jewish programming eased students’ adjustment to life on campus during the pandemic.
Hundreds of Jewish Knights are beyond excited to get back to full capacity for Shabbat dinners in Hillel’s ballroom, movie nights in the theater, and more in the 2021-2022 school year. However, the shadow of the pandemic is impossible to escape; many policies established during COVID will remain permanent in years to come. Online sign-ups for all events, consistent virtual programming, delivery or pickup options for meals, and more outdoor events are all changes that were made out of necessity but will stick around for efficiency and inclusivity.
I cannot thank UCF Hillel enough for ensuring that I had a Jewish community to return to at UCF, for giving me the opportunity to meet new students, for continuing to help me develop my identity both as a Jew and a college student, and for helping me spread a comforting light in the darkest of times.