Chinese food, Shabbat dinners with friends, Israel programming, social justice initiatives and lectures from Dr. Ruth: In key ways, the experiences of Jewish students at Hillel and Chabad in the Greater Philadelphia area haven’t changed a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s certainly not for the world’s lack of trying. The shock of the spring, with seniors sent home early, was only compounded by the touch-and-go planning of the summer, when state and local guidelines for stopping the spread of infection were changing as quickly as those of the colleges and universities themselves. The University of Pennsylvania, for one, announced that undergraduate students would not be able to live in campus housing just weeks before the first day of the fall semester.
But for rabbis leading branches of those mainstays of campus Jewish life, the fall has been an invitation to “double down on our values,” as Rabbi Isabel de Koninck put it.
“Just watching students’ commitment to trying to make the best of this, and trying to figure out who they want to be, as leaders and as people, through this pandemic, has really been a huge bright spot,” said de Koninck, executive director of Hillel at Drexel University.
At Drexel, de Koninck, her staff and the Hillel student leaders, with guidance from the Drexel Hillel board of directors and Hillel International, have spent the last eight months trying to figure out how to create meaningful Hillel experiences, just like they always do. That whole “can’t-be-in-a-room together” element, however, presented some novel challenges.
By the summer, de Koninck said, the prospect of basing the entirety of a Hillel experience on Zoom sounded undesirable. Thus, a workaround was needed, something that would allow pods of Jewish students, safely seeing each other in person, to have a Hillel experience that wasn’t mediated by a screen. What emerged from brainstorming sessions were “Jewish life kits,” as de Koninck put it. More than just care packages, they included recipes (and their constituent ingredients), engaging discussion prompts (and a journal in which to reflect upon them) and even holiday cards to send around to friends and family.
The kits allowed students, “whether they were living with roommates or living with their parents,” de Koninck said, “to touch and feel and taste and experience the holidays, without necessarily having to be in front of a screen.” That method of connection, plus Drexel Hillel’s student-led “Wellness Ambassador” program, has more than softened the blow of this semester. It’s helped to chart a path to the next one.
A similar dynamic is at play at Penn Hillel. In the spring, the staff contacted every single Jewish undergraduate at the school to see how they were doing. Like the staff and student leaders of the Drexel Hillel, they understood that ensuring the well-being of their community would mean that sort of care, in perpetuity.
Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director of Penn Hillel, landed on one similar solution: themed baskets of food and discussion questions, distributed to trained discussion leaders, spread out among pods of Jewish students. Just like that, over 200 students were spending time each week in groups of 10 to 15, talking about topics like the presidential election and Israel.
Such comforts weren’t just provided to students who had decided to live near campus, though. Miniature versions were sent to Jewish students at their homes across the country, and they were also invited to drop in on the frequent Zoom-based lectures, from the likes of the aforementioned
For Shira Silver, a senior and co-president of Penn Hillel, her fonder memories of this bizarre semester will be from the “To-Go Tuesdays.” Every Tuesday night, for eight weeks straight, more than 100 students came to a socially distanced distribution line outside the Hillel building for “hot meals and warm smiles,” Silver said. Indulging the Jewish mother inside of her, Silver added, was the cherry on top of a slew of increasingly precious face-to-face interactions.
At Chabad at Temple University, Rabbi Baruch Kantor attributes this semester’s successes to flexibility. As the medical and legal realities of the fall shifted, and then shifted again, it was the ability to remain nimble that allowed Kantor and his team to respond to student needs, to drop what wasn’t working and invest more deeply in what was. In Temple’s case, some of those successes have been at-home Shabbat kits for pods of students combined with semi-regular face-to-face interaction from a safe distance.
“Thank God, we’ve seen a lot a lot of students,” Kantor said.
At the Rohr Center for Jewish Life – Chabad House, serving Jewish students at Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore College, two signature programs that have traditionally attracted high interest were adapted for the pandemic, according to Rabbi Eli Gurevitz, co-director of the Rohr Center.
A popular program that pairs students with local Holocaust survivors has actually become even more popular, expanding the number of students involved and the pool of Holocaust survivors. And the loss of a Birthright trip, usually a huge enthusiasm-generator, has been somewhat offset by increased attendance and interest in Israel programming.
No one knows what the spring will bring. Cases are up across the country, and colleges that make decisions now may be reversing them soon. And though no one is blind to what’s been lost this semester, their eyes are open to what’s been found, too.
“Some good things come out of this craziness,” Gurevitz said.