Hillels Reunited and It Feels So Good

Drexel University Hillel members. Courtesy of Anna Caplan

By Leah Snyderman

For Hillels on college campuses over the last year, the absence of in-person programming was palpable.

Like seemingly every other organization, Hillels across the world had to adapt to different circumstances because of the pandemic and, with colleges now returning, there are new questions they’ll need to address. Namely, what will programming look like, and who is back on campus?

The time away, though, has bolstered the resolve of students and staff to get back on track.

“A year of distance is causing students to want to be together more than ever, to gather and create in-person communities,” said Rachel Saifer Goldman, director of operations at Penn Hillel.

Hillel representatives said building relationships with peers is a foundational element, and the lockdown only made that more important. So, with colleges welcoming students back to campus, that will allow Hillels to strengthen the relationships formed online last year.

“We meet students where they are, in a way that establishes comfort and connection,” said Jeremy Winaker, executive director of the Greater Philly Hillel Network.

Returning to in-person operations requires planning around new COVID guidelines. Because they are part of a university, most Hillels are following their school’s guidelines.

The University of Pennsylvania has required all students and staff be vaccinated. Along with mandatory vaccination, masks are required to be worn indoors. Penn Hillel plans on setting up a tent outside its building for holding programs.

“This added space will help keep our students safe and comfortable,” Saifer said.

Students and staff at Drexel University are also required to be vaccinated. Drexel Hillel follows the guidelines of the university’s Return Oversight Committee, which is comprised of public health experts working to create safe guidelines.

Executive Director and Campus Rabbi Isabel de Koninck is keeping an open mind while planning. Drexel Hillel is staying prepared by arranging for multiple versions of events.

“We’re planning one version of an event where we can have food, one where we can’t, one where we are indoors, another where we are outdoors,” de Koninck said. “Our students are craving the opportunity to build relationships in person, so right now we’re seeing Zoom/screen-based events as a last resort.”

The Greater Philly Hillel Network is taking a similar approach. Zoom will still be used, especially where geography plays a role, but in-person events will be prioritized.

“We will be booking outdoor spaces, which have the advantage of being safer, and of helping connect to the learning opportunity of the upcoming Jewish year being a shmita year,” Winaker said, referencing the Jewish tradition of a farming sabbatical every seven years.

The Hillels that are part of the Greater Philly Hillel Network — West Chester University, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College and the Jewish Graduate Student Network — will abide by their universities’ policies. They will actively encourage students to get vaccinated if their respective universities don’t require it, and staff to wear masks.

No matter the regulations or requirements, Hillels and the members are mostly just looking forward to being able to get together in person.

At Penn Hillel, staff is ready to welcome students to campus. New student orientation programming starts on Aug. 23 and will last for a week.

West Chester Hillel is particularly excited for its Shabbat dinners, where “students are transformed by the chance to connect at the end of their week,” Winaker said.

Hillels at Haverford and Bryn Mawr are both looking forward to High Holiday programs, and the Jewish Graduate Student Network can’t wait for its New to Philly Happy Hour! on Aug. 31.

Drexel Hillel is bringing back alumna Danielle Brief as an artist-educator in residence. Brief will work with students interested in connecting their Jewish values, culture and heritage to their experiences in the arts.

“Staff and students are enormously excited to have her back on campus,” de Koninck said.
In fact, they’re excited for everyone to be back.”

Leah Snyderman is an intern for the Jewish Exponent.


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