At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I joined the “Zoom University Hillel” Facebook page alongside nearly 15,000 other young Jewish college students from around the world. It has since been utilized for many purposes, including the sharing of memes, online event coordination, and simply creating a sense of togetherness in this time of physical isolation.
The “Zoom University Hillel” Facebook page is very diverse, especially when it comes to the locations of its members. I felt motivated to share their different Jewish stories. I made a post with a “call for submissions” asking for quick summaries of what Jewish life is like at the universities of the other “Zoom University Hillel” members. Below is a collection of what I recieved:
1. Gaby Ostrove, UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley has two main Jewish student centers: Hillel and Chabad. Both organizations are thriving communities that help Jewish students find meaning in their Jewish life and in their life at Berkeley in general. I have spent more time at Hillel and can speak more to its programmatic offerings than those of Chabad, but Chabad offers a wide range of high-quality programs and experiences for students. Weekly, Chabad hosts a Taco Tuesday and Hillel hosts a Wednesday barbecue, both of which are free for all students, and both organizations hold Shabbat celebrations. Hillel has several weekly fellowships, including the Jewish Learning Fellowship and the Shabbat Hosting Lab. Hillel also has many opportunities for student leadership, including a Hillel Student Board and an Engagement Fellowship. Hillel houses many student-run clubs including a range of Israel-centered clubs, and it offers many other opportunities for engagement including one-on-one coffee conversations with students and staff, book clubs, social justice projects, weekly bagels on Memorial Glade, Cafe Ivrit for Hebrew-speaking students, and Torah/Talmud study. Hillel also brings students to Israel in the winter and summer on trips such as Birthright, the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, and Perspectives. Hillel also hosts celebrations and learning opportunities for Jewish holidays. Highlights include: High Holiday services, eating meals in the sukkah, student-led Megillah readings on Purim, and the wide range of seders on Passover.
Hillel continues to support students and build community online. Hillel provides opportunities to socialize with “Bagels on the Zoom” and the staff is always available to chat with students one-on-one. Clubs, fellowships, and learning groups continue to meet weekly. Hillel has also hosted fun virtual events like a “Jewpardy” style trivia competition and a movie night. Although we can’t all be together in the Hillel building, Hillel is finding ways to keep us all connected.
Despite what you may have heard, it is easy to be joyfully Jewish at Berkeley. Challenging moments do arise, but Berkeley’s Jewish community supports and loves students through anything that we face. I spent countless hours at Hillel throughout my four years at Berkeley and my college experience would not have been anywhere near as fun or meaningful as it was without the staff and students that make up Berkeley Hillel. I am endlessly grateful for Hillel and the Berkeley Jewish community at large, and it is what I will miss most when I graduate.
2. Marjorie Rogers, Hofstra University
Hofstra University— located in the western part of Long Island— has a strong Jewish presence on campus, and many clubs and services available to accommodate Jewish students. We have Hillel, Chabad and several Kosher dining options— including a Glatt Kosher restaurant on campus.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hofstra Hillel offered weekly Shabbat dinners and services, a sushi dinner & Jewish learning on Tuesdays (an event known as ‘Jewcy Sushi’) and jam sessions every Thursday.
Hofstra Hillel has a strong sense of Tikkun Olam. In 2019 after the high holidays, Hofstra Hillel took part in a ’Reverse Tashlich’ beach clean up at Jones Beach State Park. We also switched over to 100% compostable silverware and plates for Shabbat dinners to reduce plastic waste.
Chabad at Hofstra also plays an important role in the lives of many Jewish students. Our Chabad rabbi and his wife host a lunch and learn every Wednesday where students can eat a home-cooked meal and talk about the Torah. They also host Shabbat dinners for students at the Chabad house.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Hofstra, Jewish campus life has continued over Zoom and Facebook. Hillel still hosts events such as virtual coffee hour, movie night and even Shabbat services. Chabad still hosts lunch and learn virtually over Zoom. During the pandemic, Jewish students at Hofstra have continued to enjoy a lot of familiar pastimes with one another, even though we cannot see each other in person.
The Hofstra Jewish community has made the best of an unfortunate situation. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, we take comfort in the fact that we still have our community and our faith. We just can’t indulge in those suspiciously good chicken tenders at the on-campus Kosher restaurant anymore.
3. Beata Fourmanovskis, York University
York University has a reputation of not being accepting of Jewish students because of its past and current history of events and clubs that hate on Jewish students and Israel. Despite all the negative feedback and clubs supporting BDS, there is a lively community of Jewish students on campus. There is a Hillel lounge at the York University Student centre that is alive and well where a lot of Jewish students can unwind, play some video games, enjoy some free coffee, and talk to the amazing Hillel staff. Hillel holds various events throughout the year that include celebrating Jewish holidays such as a Purim costume contest and fun social events such as games night. Jewski, a sub-division of Hillel, is also very prominent at York University where Russian speaking Jewish students can connect and attend various events throughout the year including a pub night and a cooking class. This year, two rising Israeli clubs made a presence at York which were Hasbara at York and Herut Canada. Hasbara at York is an Israel advocacy club where I served as VP of Programming. This year, we tabled and raised money for Save a Child’s Heart and planned social events throughout the year. Herut Canada brought Israel advocacy and education in tabling and social events to the York University community despite the negative events and the riot that occurred earlier in the year. Overall, this school year had a lot of Jewish and Israel events for students to partake in to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Due to this pandemic, I have enjoyed being a part of the Facebook group, Zoom University Hillel, which has over 10,000 members and allowed me to connect with students around the world. I also use social media to follow these clubs and the videos/events they post online so I can continue to stay connected with the amazing Jewish community on campus.
4. Aaron Forman, Carleton College
Carleton College is a small liberal arts college of 2,000 undergraduate students located in Northfield, MN. Ranked #7 on US News and World Report’s liberal arts college ranking and #1 for undergraduate teaching, Carleton attracts a very geographically diverse student body, including a sizable Jewish population. Carleton is home to an independent Jewish student organization called the Jewish Students of Carleton (JSC), which also serves the smaller Jewish community at nearby St. Olaf College. Carleton does not have a Hillel or Chabad chapter, but the JSC is a member of the “Judaism on Our Own Terms” network of independent Jewish student organizations. Each week, the JSC hosts Shabbat services at Page House, the Jewish interest house, and Bagels & Torah Study with Rabbi Shosh Dworsky. The JSC also organizes larger events for the High Holy Days, Purim-Holi (partnering with the Mosaic of South Asian Interests at Carleton), and Passover. Each trimester, the JSC conducts a Shabbat road trip to a Twin Cities synagogue or Hillel. Other fun JSC activities include Hot Dog Shabbat (outdoor campfire Shabbat on an island in the on-campus lake), Yom Kipporch (fast-breaking festivities), Sukkah building, and pajama Shabbat for the week before finals each term– which also consists of watching an episode of a Jewish themed comedy like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Broad City. The JSC is managed by a student board, which organizes events and fundraising.
5. Hannah Barron, the University of Georgia
UGA is in the heart of the Bible Belt, so there is not a huge Jewish population. But what Jewish population there is, we are a strong community with a large representation on campus. We’re in many schools, organizations, and sports teams. On campus, we have both Chabad and Hillel, with hundreds of students in each. We also have Dawgs for Israel recently combined with Hillel, SSI (Students Supporting Israel), AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which sends students to DC every year, Karma Coffee, Challah for Hunger, and the Israeli students studying with us. We also have the Panhellenic presence with SDT (Sigma Delta Tau), TEP (Tau Epsilon Phi), and AEPI (Alpha Epsilon Pi). Events include Israelfest, Passover lunches and seders, weekly Shabbat dinners, movie and Kahoot nights, Welcome Week festivities, yoga, Caffeine Fix, discussion seminars at both Chabad and Hillel, Holy Day services, tabling, charity basketball games, soccer, wellness events, guest speaker panels, social media polls, challah bakes, finals studying/snacks, and many many more. As you can see, we have lots of events on campus!
The coronavirus crisis has definitely changed a lot of things. Since we can’t physically be together as the community, we can’t have Shabbat dinners, or Passover seders, or sorority chapter meetings anymore, for example. So many of our biggest events have been cancelled. But we are still trying to connect with each other virtually, since social distancing never equals zero connection. We’ve been having social media challenges, Not Your Bubbe’s Book Club, Israel activities, virtual panhellenic programs for seniors, board meetings, a Passover Kahoot, and Zoom chats. We’ve also been doing virtual Shabbats, Passover and bagel to-go kits, among others. I imagine that as the pandemic continues, this is how we’ll keep the Jewish community together.
Organizations have emphasized the importance of our community and getting us through this crisis together.
I am in SDT, and have also been on the Hillel social programming executive board for two years now. I am also the marketing vice president for Dawgs for Israel. I seriously love the Jewish community on campus and getting to be a part of change by being on the leadership committees. I’ve met so many great people (some seriously amazing souls) and created some amazing memories. Coming from a very small Bible Belt town, I’m so glad to have this tight-knit experience in college. I’ve never had so many Jewish friends before. Knowing what these organizations are doing to maintain our community during this crazy time and also during anti-Semitic situations, it’s so amazing. I love my UGA Jewish family and am so proud to call them such!