Navigating the new normal: Jewish freshman life during COVID-19

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By Nira Dayanim 
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

An already challenging transition to life on campus has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic for freshmen this fall. From reduced dorm capacity to take out meals and online/blended classes, campus life looks very different. 

The spirited and active Hillel community has always been a source of comfort for Jewish students within a huge and diverse student body. However, in the wake of the pandemic, religious life on campus is somewhat unfamiliar. 

For some Jewish freshmen, the absence of available communal Jewish practices is a stark contrast to the religiously inspiring gap year in Israel many returned from this March.

 “It’s strange [praying] alone in my room. I’ve been doing it for the past few months now, but it’s different from how I thought it would be,” said Zach Wolf, a freshman business major.  

Whether it’s changes in daily rituals like communal prayer or the absence of large and lively holiday celebrations, students are preparing to experience this year differently.

“Not going to [synagogue] on Shabbat and not having a real Shabbat meal has been weird,” said Yoni Snow, a freshman letters and sciences student. 

Yoni Snow (left) and Rafi Kigner(right) pick up take out lunch from Hillel. Photo taken by Nira Dayanim.

While there’s no substitute for beautiful services or a delicious Shabbat dinner, Hillel and Chabad are going above and beyond to make unprecedented times feel a little more normal.

Specifically, Hillel’s ACHIM program, which pairs each freshman with an upperclassman, is bridging the gap between new and more seasoned students at this university. 

“Every year we do the ACHIM program so freshmen have someone to ask questions to. Because there are fewer opportunities to come together as a community, we’re encouraging upperclassmen to take a more active role,” said Kedma board president and senior majoring in kinesiology, Dalia Planer. “We’ve also been trying to move some events online.” 

The efforts of on-campus Jewish organizations aren’t lost on the class of 2024. 

“Even though a lot of campus is closed, [Hillel] is doing a great job of making sure every kid has what they need…and Chabad is providing kids with mezuzahs and Jewish calendars,” said freshman business management major Sara Blau. 

Despite Hillel and Chabad’s support, the Jewish social scene has taken a hit. Because large gatherings aren’t permitted due to COVID-19 restrictions, some freshmen are finding it difficult to meet other Jewish students. 

Stephanie Deichman, a freshman letters and sciences student, recognizes that making new friends this year requires some extra effort.“You really have to put yourself out there if you want to meet people. It’s not like we are all at Hillel on Shabbat and can meet everyone there,” Deichman said.

Although there are limitations, after months at home, many freshmen, including Stephanie chose to return to campus because they were in desperate need of a change of scenery.

“I would have gone crazy taking online classes at home,” she said.   

Others, sick of the pandemic-induced isolation, just want to salvage whatever modicum of a social life they can. 

“I was going to have to do this eventually. Now, it honestly might be easier to really get to know people because there are fewer freshmen,” said freshman agricultural science and technology major Rafi Kigner.

But for many freshmen, COVID-19 concerns have contributed to the decision to move to apartments or, in freshman nursing major Kira Mazel’s case, stay home.

“I’m anticipating an outbreak, so paying for dorming or an apartment wouldn’t be worth it for me,” said Mazel. 

For those who decided to dorm on campus, a sense of uncertainty looms. With cases of the virus on the rise in College Park, some anticipate that campus closing is not a matter of if, but when.  

“In my dorm, we had a case [of COVID-19] the other day, and it’s scary but we just have to deal with it,” said Wolf. “It’s not worth just giving it up.” 

Despite the undeniable challenges, at home and on campus, in apartments and dorms, many freshmen still have an overwhelming optimism about their futures.

“You know, it’s easy to get caught up in the craziness, but when it comes down to it, the only way to make things work is by staying positive,” Blau said, “Things will still be good, they just might look different.”