Although remote learning and safety restrictions made Marley Slotkin’s first semester at Temple University anything but a normal college experience, she hasn’t had a problem making new friends.
The freshman joined a Facebook group for the Temple Class of 2024 last summer and started connecting with her peers online. She also joined a Snapchat group chat for new Jewish students and became close with the members.
“We ended up doing weekly calls, and we all got to know each other really well,” she said.
Once she arrived on campus in the fall, Slotkin was able to meet up with members of the group, who are now some of her closest friends. Many of them ended up joining Temple Hillel, where Slotkin is now a student engagement intern. They have participated in group activities like virtual yoga, virtual Shabbat dinners and outdoor gardening together.
Many people have used social media and video call platforms to keep in touch with old friends and loved ones during the pandemic, but some, like Slotkin, take it a step further and forge entirely new friendships thanks to an abundance of virtual programs and online groups.
Jenn Reiss, director of Jewish student life at West Chester University Hillel, was pregnant with her first child at the beginning of the pandemic and joined a Facebook group for new moms. One day, feeling especially isolated, she put out a call for other mothers who would be giving birth in late August, the same time she was due.
The response was overwhelming, so she formed a group chat with the first 10 people who responded. Since then, they became a support system for each other by offering advice, convening on Zoom for group happy hours and organizing gift exchanges. They’re located in different time zones across the country, so if someone is up feeding her baby in the middle of the night, there’s often a fellow mother awake to offer encouragement.
“Being so alone at home, working from home with the new baby and my husband working from home, it’s just been one of the most helpful things, having this group of ladies to lean on and talk to,” Reiss said.
Alicia Rosenbaum made new friends during her Jewish Changemakers fellowship, which is run by Jewish Federations of North America. One of the fellows made a Facebook group for everyone in the program, and Rosenbaum joined a group chat for planning virtual events.
The fellows bonded over their passion for Jewish community, which gradually evolved into virtual game nights and movie nights. Rosenbaum, who lives in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, became especially close with Samantha Kuvin, who lives in Ohio, and Izzy Bennett, who lives in Maryland.
“Even though we met over the summer, we still tend to talk every week or so. And I actually had a virtual birthday in late February and they came to that. And they’ve gotten to know some of my friends back at home also, which is really cool,” Rosenbaum said.
They’ve never met in person, but they hope to get together when travel is safe again.
Others bonded with people they met while helping their communities. Eugene Desyatnik, co-founder of Sew Face Masks Philadelphia, made several new friends through the mutual aid organization.
He channeled his community organizing background to grow the group on a Facebook page during the earlier days of the pandemic, when face masks were in short supply and desperately needed by essential workers.
Founders organized mask-making events, material swaps and delivery routes over Slack channels and Discord. People from across the Greater Philadelphia area joined, putting Desyatnik in contact with volunteers outside his own neighborhood, Bella Vista.
The group had online sew-ins, or “sew-a-longs” where they chatted and made masks together on Zoom. Conversations eventually grew beyond exchanging materials and sewing patterns to touch on people’s personal lives.
“Without these Facebook groups, I don’t think I would have met anybody over the past year,” said Desyatnik, who considers himself an introvert.
Local activity has slowed now that the vaccine rollout is underway, but Desyatnik and other group members are now collaborating with volunteers across the country to send masks to Native American tribes hit hard by COVID-19.
Back at Temple, Slotkin also became friends with people in her residence hall, the people she works with as a campus tour guide and members of the women’s fitness group. The latter get together for outdoor workouts and weekend social events.
The only place where she feels connecting is more difficult is in classes, which are mostly remote. Virtual learning doesn’t give her much opportunity to get to know her classmates.
Still, she feels lucky that she has had so many opportunities to make new connections.
“Now, more so than ever, is the time to just reach out to people and make the effort to put yourself out there, even if you’re nervous about doing that,” she said. “We’re all going through this together.”