National Decision Day for students committing to college is May 1, and many are still uncertain about what the upcoming school year will look like.
Most colleges and universities have promised some form of in-person learning in the fall, but details remain hazy about how closely it will resemble the pre-pandemic college experience.
And Jewish students and the organizations that serve them are also trying to figure out how Jewish life on campus will operate.
When asked about the upcoming year, Jenn Reiss, director of Jewish student life at West Chester University Hillel, said she tries to be as transparent as possible with prospective and admitted students, since there’s nothing worse than building up expectations and having the real experience fall short.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we will be finding as many opportunities as we can for students to feel connected to Hillel and other Jewish students on campus,” she said.
She said the West Chester administration provided them with a list of students who had accepted their admissions offer and a list of those who had been accepted to the school but had not yet committed. This gave the organization a chance to connect with new students and reach out to those who were still on the fence.
Many parents who were not comfortable traveling with their children for tours expressed concern that they couldn’t see the school in person.
“I know that when I talk to these prospective students and families they’re feeling a little lost because if they hadn’t already toured these schools pre-COVID, they kind of feel like they’re not getting the same experience,” she said.
Hannah Rosenberg, engagement director at Hillel at Drexel University, said the lack of in-person tours made it more difficult to connect with prospective students this year. Hillel International stepped in and organized two virtual college fairs to help students learn more about Jewish life on campus, which attracted thousands of students and resulted in dozens contacting Drexel Hillel specifically.
When students ask about making new friends or having Shabbat dinners, Rosenberg tells them what student life was like both before COVID-19 hit and after. She anticipates that programming this semester will incorporate aspects of both, including expanded virtual options and in-person events with appropriate safety precautions.
Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, executive director at Penn Hillel, said most incoming students have approached his staff with typical questions about kosher food, Shabbat observance, Greek life and clubs rather than pandemic-related concerns. The isolation of 2020 and 2021 has weighed heavily on many of them, and they are excited for a year that promises to be better than the last.
“They’re typically much more interested in what the Penn students have to say, than what I have to say,” Greenberg said. “They’re excited to hear about what student life is
He said Penn Hillel is operating under the assumption that birthright trips, parties and classes will all be happening this fall as part of a new normal, which may involve masks and smaller groups but will still resemble life before COVID-19.
Susan Becker, assistant director of Hillel at Temple University, said she and her staff will continue to focus on the importance of building strong one-on-one relationships with students regardless of what the semester looks like. The upheaval from the pandemic made it clear how meaningful these interactions can be.
“It means more to people than you might realize, just to send them a note asking how they are and letting them know that you care about them,”
Sam Salz, a senior at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, said his top factors for choosing a school were community, tradition, a good academic reputation and strong financial aid. He was accepted at Temple, Drexel, Ursinus College, University of Delaware, West Chester and Texas A&M University and will choose among them.
The pandemic did not impact his application process much, other than delaying his ability to tour schools in person and get a sense of campus life. Lack of in-person learning or on-campus social life did not influence his school choice.
The presence of Jewish life on campus was also important to him since he is Shomer Shabbat. His mother, Marianna Salz, said some schools are not always aware that he will not be able to use electronic cards to access dorms.
Ashton Portnoy, a senior at Upper Dublin High School, started researching schools as a junior and visited Drexel, Ursinus and Loyola University Maryland before campuses shut down. The pandemic impacted his admissions process in a few key ways, including opting out of taking the SATs and taking virtual tours of campuses. Being at home so much also made him more willing to consider options that were further away.
He ultimately decided to attend Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Although the school is Catholic, he was impressed by the students at the Hillel, who told him during a Zoom call he joined to learn about campus clubs that the school is inclusive.
“They made it super inviting to come hang out with them at Hillel and just be with other Jewish kids, and that sounded great,” he said.
Although he acknowledges the pandemic has made everything strange, he is looking forward to making friends, attending sports games and participating in normal college life.