Hillel Creates Off-Campus Connections

Rabbi Gabe Greenberg leads Penn Conversations at Penn Hillel. Courtesy of Gabe Greenberg

School’s out for the summer, but Hillel is still reaching out to college students who feel isolated from their peers and face an uncertain fall semester.

Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, director and senior Jewish educator at Penn Hillel, leads the virtual discussion series Penn Conversations to foster a sense of community during social distancing.

“(Students) were quickly and unceremoniously disconnected from their campus community and were seeking connections to the broader Penn community,” he said. “This wasn’t just true for students; this was for faculty as well.”

Each session features a member of the University of Pennsylvania faculty in conversation with students. Many of the sessions have involved discussions about current events, including the global pandemic and racial justice protests.

A recent Penn Conversation featured Howard Stevenson, professor of urban education and Africana studies, discussing anti-Black racism in higher education.

Stevenson, who is Black, recalled an encounter during his early years teaching at the university, when a security guard interrogated him about his presence in the library after he had already presented school ID.

“The question he asked me was not, ‘What are you doing?’ but ‘Where do you belong?’ I will never forget that,” Stevenson said.

Although the conversations focus on serious subjects, Greenberg said Zoom gives them a more casual, intimate feel.

“They’ve been very conversational and sort of have a very informal vibe to them,” he said.
Greenberg has hosted seven Penn Conversations since the program started in early summer and plans to continue into the fall.

Although students are scheduled to return to campus, University of Pennsylvania has announced many classes will still take place online to allow for greater social distancing.

“We feel there will be a continued need,” Greenberg said.

Hillel at Drexel University is also leading online events this summer. Staff hosted a first virtual information session for incoming students on July 12.

“We have not held a virtual session before, but we have had summer meetups for students based in larger cities. We didn’t think that was a safe option this year,” Engagement Director Hannah Rosenberg said.

She said the idea came from returning students who remembered being anxious to start classes and meet new people before the start of freshman year.

The information session addressed Jewish campus life and gave incoming students the chance to meet upperclassmen and Hillel staff in Zoom breakout rooms.

They also took a virtual tour of the Perelman Center for Jewish Life, and learned about modified procedures for early move-in and Welcome Week activities.

Rosenberg said Hillel at Drexel University is developing guidelines for returning to campus life during the pandemic, which will be shared with students closer to the start of the school year on Sept. 21.

“This is being worked out over the next few weeks,” she said.

The organization is also launching a Wellness Ambassador program to help students manage their mental health. Volunteers will complete their nine-hour Student Support Network training over Zoom during the summer and lead activities for their peers in the fall and spring.

“They’ll learn different tools for recognizing if someone is really struggling and what you can do for your mental health while navigating this new reality,” said Leah Thomas, manager of Israel engagement.

Thomas is leading the program with Michael Gotlib, an on-campus therapist at Drexel. They began developing it before the pandemic.

“I staff our Birthright trips, and I noticed a lot of mental health issues came up for students while traveling,” Thomas said. Causes ranged from exam stress to lapsed vigilance about taking medications to general disruptions of routines.

Now that the pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, the need for increased mental health support is even more pronounced.

Thomas said ambassadors are learning to lead events like meditation sessions, online classes and self-care nights. They are also preparing to reach out to students on a one-to-one basis.

The peer-based support system is intended to make mental health care feel more accessible for students who may be hesitant to reach out to a counselor. l

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