By Laina S. Miller
Student life this year is different in a way that has never been dealt with before — and the Jewish organizations at this university have stepped up to support students in need.
Chabad and Hillel have poured time and effort into bringing life and joy into the solitary world of living on campus during a pandemic.
“We quickly kind-of pivoted,” said Rabbi Eli Backman, the Chabad rabbi on campus. “We’re going to have to do things for students … to break up the monotony of sitting in their rooms …to allow the students to have a piece of Shabbos.”
Chabad prepared and delivered between 120 and 130 packages to UMD freshmen, which included Jewish art calendars, a welcome card, crafts and small things like challah and prayer cards to supplement Shabbat meals and prayers spent in dorm rooms, according to Chabad. For Rosh Hashanah, they sent packages including an entire brisket dinner “with the trimmings” alongside “a small Rosh Hashanah thought” and some Rosh Hashanah prayers, distributed to approximately 70 students.
Hillel has prepared to-go meals for students who would normally come to the kosher dining hall and TLC packages for students in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19. Like Chabad, Hillel has been providing Shabbat packages, with contents like challah and candles.
“We want to be there for the students, always, especially this semester,” said M. J. Kurs-Lasky, Maryland Hillel’s assistant director. “How can we bring a little surprise, a little smile, to a student’s day?”
Hillel has also taken advantage of the many options offered by Zoom events, not only for services, but for classes, conversations and community-building activities normally held in large groups. Whether it’s just hanging out and chatting, arts and crafts, cooking, educational or services, the normally-busy calendar has been filled nearly as much as it might be in a normal, non-COVID-19-limited year.
Similarly, Chabad has taken advantage of Zoom as a replacement for community gatherings, teaching classes and holding group arts-and-crafts sessions over video-call. But Orthodox prayer services, by their nature, must be in person.
Chabad and Hillel both held limited in-person services on Rosh Hashanah after receiving last-minute permission for small gatherings from the university. These services were outdoors, socially distanced and followed all COVID guidelines from the state, county and university. Reform and Conservative-style services were also held over Zoom on Rosh Hashanah, with Ruach at UMD and Hillel International.
One of the biggest challenges of Rosh Hashanah, for many, was how to manage shofar soundings. Many believe that one must hear the sound of the shofar in person — a difficult task during a pandemic with several students in isolation or quarantine and restrictive rules about gatherings of people.
As with their care packages, Chabad leapt to the challenge, sending shofar sounders all over campus so that students in quarantine and isolation could open their windows or stand on their balconies and hear the shofar. It was “physically tiring, but spiritually invigorating,” according to Backman.
Yom Kippur, a fast day focused mostly on prayer, had different challenges. Some in-person prayer indoor and outdoors services were planned, although spaces must were reserved ahead of time in order to maintain safety measures.
In addition to several Orthodox and Conservative/tradional egalitarian serves, Hillel also offered several online options.
Plans for Sukkot, the last holiday of the fall season, are still up in the air — so much can change every day, and as with Rosh Hashanah, finding ways to make a holiday of gathering into a holiday of mostly-distant people will take creativity and effort.