COVID-19 has changed the way college students go about day-to-day life, having to attend classes online and being unable to see many of their friends in person in the typical social settings that college experiences are made of.
Jewish students, often away from their hometowns and synagogues, turn to Jewish on-campus organizations to help connect with peers and maintain their Jewish identity. In the face of the pandemic, with the standard in-person events at campus Hillels and Chabads now unsafe, these groups have adapted to provide students with the community they need more than ever.
The AJT spoke with three on-campus Jewish organizations about how they have adapted to the pandemic.
Shabbat meals and services are typically the foundational events of on-campus Jewish life, but with COVID-19, that has changed. Many of the organizations contacted have found that they have been able to expand their outreach to students during this time with drive-thru and online Shabbat events.
Elliot Karp, CEO of Hillels of Georgia, told the AJT, “Normally, at Emory Hillel, we may attract 60 to 75 students for Friday night services and a Shabbat meal, but on average we were distributing 100 to 130 Shabbat meals in a box every week [during the pandemic], where students picked up meals to go.”
It isn’t just at Emory where Shabbat meal programs are helping more students connect with Judaism. “We have now recognized that Shabbat has to keep going; Judaism doesn’t stop,” said Shifra Sharfstein, co-director of the Chabad at Georgia Tech and Georgia State.
“There always has to be something that is accessible and available for Jewish students to do” for the holidays, and Chabad makes that possible, she said. It also is trying to continue providing accommodations, from food to learning opportunities, Sharfstein added.
“We used to have 120 students packed inside for a beautiful dinner together, [and] we didn’t just want people to take food and go. We wanted them to have a little bit of a safe social experience, which is something the university felt was very important, that students should have a little bit of social interaction, but in a safe way.”
In combination with Georgia Tech Hillel, Chabad has found ways to offer students a safe social experience while helping students connect with Judaism. “We help to plan an activity with them that fits into our theme, and they have some kind of Jewish activity. Like this past week for Tu B’ Shevat they were planting succulents, and the Shabbat To Go food was the seven different fruits of Israel. There is always something for students to do at the same time, so students can afterwards be outside and socialize with each other, and there is a reason for them to socialize, but in a safe way.”
Organizations have had to find ways to meet the growing needs of students, stretched by Zoom classes and isolation, as at the University of Georgia, where Hillel has tried to stay connected with students. UGA Hillel Director Roey Shoshan said, “The biggest adjustment we made is before the pandemic, we had people at our house for Shabbat dinner. … We get close to a hundred people.
“Instead of giving up on that, we have a system where students can get a Shabbat box, basically a Shabbat dinner; in addition to the meal you also get a bag with challah, grape juice and dessert. We utilized a parking lot to basically do a drive by Shabbat meal pick up, which has been super successful. We can serve so many more students that way,” Shoshan said. “We are able to check in on them, see their face, and say ‘hi.’”
Hillel at UGA also moved many of its meetings online, including two fellowships and weekly policy meetings. Even while continuing events held before the pandemic, Jewish campus organizations have found new ways to engage students.
“Things we never thought were possible, like doing things for alumni; we now have weekly alumni classes” at the Chabad house at Georgia Tech, Sharfstein said. “Doing things for students who otherwise would be too busy to come for a class, Zoom is easy for them to come to.”
While some Jewish groups have tried to hold in-person programs when possible, online programming has become a valuable alternative. For Emory’s Hillel, this was particularly useful when it came to maintaining programs involving Israel.
“Obviously all trips to Israel have been suspended, but one of our more important trips is the Maccabee Task Force, wherein we take Jewish student leaders and non-Jewish student government leaders to Israel on a fact-finding mission,” Karp said. “My staff said why can’t we do a virtual tour … They organized a five-day, virtual tour to Israel; they met for two hours a day for five days.”
Students have found their own ways to connect with each other through these organizations, but also helped one another during the pandemic. At Georgia Tech’s Chabad, “Students have created a COVID relief committee, where students will deliver Shabbat food to those who have tested positive or are in quarantine,” Sharfstein said. At Emory’s Hillel, when a student’s family couldn’t care for them after they had contact with someone who was COVID-positive or had COVID themselves, Karp said that “Our staff was attentive, providing them with contact, and more importantly, if a parent wanted to send them something, instead of buying it on Amazon, we can go out and get it for them.” Lauren Blazofsky, associate director of Emory University Hillel, told the AJT that, “At the end of the day, all of our students want to connect and be a part of something and we’ve done just that. For now, we are lucky to be able to see students in person and adjust to this new norm.”