By Yakira Cohen
Although college Jewish life in the summer typically winds down as students leave campus, local Hillels are gearing up for action-packed virtual programming this year for students stuck at home.
“We’re looking at this summer differently from how we’ve looked at previous summers,” said Naomi Gohn, the associate executive director for Maryland Hillel, which serves the University of Maryland, College Park.
Maryland Hillel is launching a Camp Hillel initiative to provide a virtual taste of camp to students who will miss out this year. Over the course of July, Hillel plans to post videos and activities students can participate in at home.
“We thought maybe there’s a way that we can connect people to this opportunity that they’re missing in a fun way that also connects them with their friends at University of Maryland and at Hillel,” Gohn said.
The UMBC Hillel serving the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, also plans to keep students engaged through social media, in addition to continuing programs that were successful during the regular school semester.
“The bigger picture is, how are we making ourselves valuable to students in a time where we can’t be face to face?” said Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, executive director and one of the campus rabbis.
Towson University Hillel also plans to continue virtual initiatives started during the semester to keep students engaged throughout the summer. Because students could easily “click on” to Shabbat programming when it was held online, Hillel saw an increase in Shabbat programming attendance and plans to continue Shabbat programming during the first and third week of the month over the summer, according to Executive Director Lisa Bodziner.
Johns Hopkins Hillel Program Director Sara Evangelista sees summer at JHU as “four big pieces”: brainstorming for fall, one-on-one engagement with individual students, learning opportunities, and social programming. This is a huge change from other summers, which Evangelista said staff typically use as time off for vacations and other professional development opportunities.
Hillels are also using this summer as a time to think about what Jewish life will look like on campuses that could be totally or partially online.
For UMCP, which recently announced that classes would be a mix of online and in person, this means figuring out how much Jewish infrastructure can be safely provided for students.
“We’re in conversation with Hillel leadership, our board, the students, the staff, the community members, to think about how we can safely operate Hillel in the fall in a way that really provides space for Jewish communal life, safely, comfortably, in line with the University of Maryland’s plan,” Gohn said.
Fierstein said he is working through the same question for UMBC: “Is there a way to engage in Jewish communal offerings without putting people at risk?”
Towson plans to start the semester in person a week early (Aug. 24), run through Thanksgiving, and continue virtually until winter break, according to Bodziner. Towson Hillel is grappling with how to balance in-person programming with safety.
“We certainly don’t have any answers and it’s very complicated, but are working through all of our stakeholders and trying to create a values-based approach to how we return,” she said.
For Johns Hopkins Hillel, planning for fall has been difficult because the university has yet to release any plans.
“We’re just making sure that everyone is safe and healthy, and we’re looking at what the university will hopefully eventually put out,” Evangelista said.
Although Evangelista “feels good” about what Hillel has accomplished with current students, she said she’s trying to figure out how to engage incoming students.
Although much of the future for Jewish life on campus remains uncertain, each campus Hillel is supporting their students virtually as they brace for what’s to come in the fall.
“This year is incredibly unique,” Evangelista said. “The staff is just wonderful and everyone has really bought in and is on board with doing whatever they need to do over the summer to carry us through.”