By Deanna Schwartz
Universities in Maryland have moved classes online and closed down campus housing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing students to return home, away from their campus Jewish communities.
Hillel staff members are working to keep their communities engaged, all while providing academic, spiritual, and emotional support.
Livestreamed Shabbat services, art and yoga classes over Zoom, WhatsApp movie nights, and digital happy hours have all been embraced.
At Johns Hopkins University, Hillel leaders have introduced “Hopkins Hillel at Home,” a series of programs designed to keep students engaged while away from campus.
Sara Evangelista, program director at Hopkins Hillel, has been spearheading Hopkins Hillel’s efforts to move interactions and programming online.
Its main efforts, Evangelista said, are to keep up normal one-on-one interactions with students, to engage the broader community through programming, and to provide information about what the university and other Jewish organizations are doing.
“We have a model of engagement that encourages students to share what their passions are, what programs they would like to see, how they would like to see the community take shape,” Evangelista said. “However, with the shift online, what we are experimenting with is just to support our students in an online platform.”
Staff at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Hillel have made it a priority to support students. “The most important piece of this is to stay in touch with our students, to check in regularly, and make sure they know that we’re still there and have resources at the ready,” said Rabbi Jeremy Fierstien, executive director of UMBC Hillel.
UMBC Hillel is also moving programs online, but it has seen a steep drop-off in the number of participants.
It recently held an online alternative to its weekly “Spiel, Shtick, and Schmooze” event. The event typically draws 35 to 40 students on campus, but the online version had a turnout of only nine students, Fierstien said.
Fierstien hopes that turnout will increase as they move out of this transitional period and begin hosting more events.
At Towson University Hillel, students can log on to Zoom or Instagram and participate in an Israeli cooking tutorial, a film screening, a musical Kabbalat Shabbat, or a contest to show off their work-from-home environment.
“In addition to having 15 to 20 Towson students at each of our virtual events, we are also now seeing this expansion of who can show up in our community,” Towson Hillel Program Director Leora Match said. “We’ve been getting siblings and family members of our students. We’ve been getting Towson Hillel governing board members and students from other universities.”
At the University of Maryland College Park, Hillel staff are more than equipped for the challenge of digitally engaging what is one of the largest Hillel communities in the country, with about 5,800 Jewish students.
“We’ve been working to take as much of the work that we normally are doing on the ground and putting it online and doing our regular one-on-one outreach with students via FaceTime and phone calls as much as possible,” said MJ Kurs-Lasky, assistant director at Maryland Hillel.
Kurs-Lasky said they have been pleased with the level of engagement and how they’ve balanced event turnout with one-on-one interactions.
While these Hillels and others across the country are providing immense support for students during this difficult time, the long-term impacts on students’ lives will not go away easily.
“There’s a real hurt that students feel beyond the disruption,” Fierstien said. “They are feeling a hurt in the loss of the community.”
Evangelista said she thinks this experience will cause students to value their campus Hillel even more.
“[Students] will realize that Hillel is more than just the list of preconceived notions that they might have about us, that we are a space for everyone and a space that cares about you more than just in a religious sense — that we care about the person and the whole student,” she said.