Hillel connects students despite the pandemic

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Students log into Zoom to play Jackbox, a quiz-based video game. Hillel created online events like this to help freshmen connect in the pandemic. Photo by Erin Harper.

By Erin Harper
@umdmitzpeh
For Mitzpeh


Despite the COVID-19 pandemic reshaping how each semester looks for college students, this university’s Hillel has continued to host a series of virtual freshmen events and Shabbat to-go dinners to keep the Jewish student body connected.

Shabbat dinners, which are available to all students, were originally designed as a “welcome back” to campus and have generated a large amount of interest from students during the pandemic. 

“We had more than 250 people coming on Friday and there definitely was a wide span of campus students, from seniors all the way down,” said Olivia Hazlett, the Maryland Hillel springboard social justice fellow. 

During the first few weeks, Shabbat dinners have operated on a “grab-and-go” cycle, providing the convenience for students to pick up their meals on Friday afternoon without having to scramble for food options at night, especially during Greek life recruitment. Anyone handling this food is expected to follow COVID-19 precautions, including wearing a mask and gloves. 

With the menu changing each week, Hillel asked students to sign up for staggered pickup times in 10-minute slots to prevent crowds from forming. As the weather warms up, Shabbat dinners will shift to include a socially distanced outdoor eating area in the Hillel parking lot. A large heated tent has enough socially distanced seating to accommodate 35 people in the coming weeks. 

Especially as in-person events are less frequent, Hazlett sees Shabbat dinners as an opportunity to give students face-to-face interactions to offset the university’s virtual learning. 

“We realized through trial-and-error that students are ‘Zoomed-out.’ We found success in these ‘grab-and-go’ style events; anything where we can see [students] in-person even if it’s for five minutes to just say hello,” she said. 

Hillel also created a series of events to welcome the university’s freshmen both on and off-campus this semester, including virtual Jewish Jeopardy! and Jackbox games and a back-to-campus care package to help on-campus students get through the required two weeks of quarantine. 

For extroverts like Elaine Berger, a freshman Jewish studies and business management major living on campus, talking to people virtually isn’t the same as connecting face-to-face. 

“[UMD] feels a little more full since there are so many new people this semester, but it’s hard to socialize as much because of the cold,” said Berger. 

Freshman Ayelet Fried, an undecided major who also lives on campus, agrees with Berger’s observation. 

“I don’t really know what I miss from being in-person because I haven’t had that opportunity. If I had to guess, I would say that when activities are in-person you have more time and ability to socialize with people outside of the freshmen class, which I would love to do,” said Fried.

Though COVID-19 has created challenges when trying to meet new people, both Berger and Fried acknowledge the Jewish community’s effort to keep the student body together. 

“I think Hillel is really doing the best they can with a very tough job,” Berger said, “it is definitely hard to navigate these times but at least I have Hillel for support when I need it.”

Outside of Hillel, many Jewish student organizations have moved to virtual networking and religious events, allowing all students to stay connected. 

One group working to connect students is Ometz, the traditional Egalitarian Jewish group. They are working to set up a live stream for virtual attendance of weekly Friday night services that are currently held in-person. 

Ometz is also in the process of creating some virtual aspects of Ometz Extravaganza, an event held every semester where students can register to be placed at a Friday night meal hosted by Ometz students, followed by a hangout where everyone comes back together at a central apartment. 

“I think this “new normal” has been challenging for everyone,” said Berger. “I’d say the best [Hillel] can do is program virtually and in-person (safely) to the best of its abilities and provide resources if students request them.”

Though virtual classes and events can take a toll on a student, Hazlett and the team at Hillel are working to prevent Zoom fatigue and burnout. 

“We want to cultivate a safe environment where students can meet each other while they’re all in the same place,” Hazlett said. “Our goal is to get students out of their isolation and connect them to resources and other peers who are in their same situation.”