For students coming back to Jewish spaces at UCLA, return has meant an exciting redefinition of places like Hillel and the Bayit, as well as challenges with attendance and community.
During one Friday night dinner in the beginning of the quarter, Hillel faculty divided students into groups to get food due to the unprecedentedly high attendance levels.
Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, Hillel at UCLA’s Director of Student Life, said that every floor was filled with students, something the Hillel team was not equipped for. In the first few weeks of the Fall quarter, Friday night Shabbat dinner saw approximately 300 students, with 160 students being the lowest attendance rate, only during midterms. In order to accommodate the increase in attendance, she said they doubled the number of Friday night staff.
“Everyone has been itching to get out of their dorms and their apartments,” Rabbi Rabizadeh said. “Everyone is tired of Zoom and being online only. This has been an opportunity for so many of us to jump into a community.”
Sharona Kaplan, who with Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan is part of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple, echoed similar thoughts.
“I feel that in the gratitude quotient,” she said, about students coming to campus spaces. “When you inherit something you take it for granted. But coming in eyes wide open without being able
to expect it or having it automatically, there’s a renewed sense of appreciation, gratitude, and awareness of how richly they’re being supported on campus.”
Students interviewed by Ha’Am agree that major events in the beginning of this quarter experienced large attendance rates, but the day-to-day of many student spaces has yet to fully recover from the pandemic.
According to Elliot Nazar, a junior majoring in Computer Science, the Hillel Shabbat saw some of its highest numbers since even before the shutdown, but the space has been emptier throughout the week than it was before the pandemic.
“Part of it is that people are on campus less during the day because of online classes, so they’re coming less to Hillel,” he told Ha’Am by phone.
Ms. Kaplan agreed that smaller events or spaces during the week are still recovering from the shutdown of in-person gatherings. She believes that these spaces will make a full comeback along the same schedule as the rest of UCLA.
“The commuter students would typically fill the building during the week because it’s where you hang out between classes if you don’t have a dorm room to crash in,” Ms. Kaplan said. “But those people haven’t fully returned. If you’re not taking full time classes, you’re not buying all day parking passes, so you don’t need to or want to stay. So it can even come down to the logistics and complexities of parking.”
Once classes go completely in-person, spaces such as Hillel may begin to regularly fill again.
Elliot added that another reason for the budding attendance rates during the week has do to with the amount of students who are completely new.
“Hillel gets carried through year by year – if you’re a freshman you have three years above you showing the way, but this year there are so many new students on campus and they heavily outweigh the older students, so they almost get to redefine the space.”
With sophomores having been on campus for as long as freshman, and almost as long as juniors, there are fewer upperclassmen to welcome in underclassmen. Elliot mentioned an underclassmen study party which saw smaller attendance than what he would have seen before the pandemic.
Ms. Kaplan agreed, adding that the newness of many students presents an opportunity too.
“There’s a lot of institutional memory that’s been lost,” she said. “A lot of upperclassmen remember how Shabbat should feel, but without that, there’s a lot of room for redefinition which is really exciting.”
Rabbi Rabizadeh added that with all the students who are new to Jewish campus spaces, new pathways can be opened up.
“[Hillel] has new things like Wonderful Wednesday,” she said. “We are asking ‘why don’t we do things in new ways?’ We’re asking a lot of questions.”
Regardless of attendance, the students who are returning to Jewish spaces on campus note the renewed desire for community and in-person space after a year and a half away.
Sophie Toubian, a senior majoring in Political Science who lives in the Bayit, said that any lower turnout has to do with the lack of experience many people have with being on campus. Regardless, most people she has seen at Bayit events are hungry for community.
“People are more excited to do stuff after not doing stuff after a whole year, there’s a lot more community in the house,” she said. “People understand that you have to work to make community work, and so people are more grateful now and working more to have that community.”
Rabbi Rabizadeh emphasized how the renewed sense of community can reignite/change spaces on campus for future generations of students.
“We’re so excited to have people back. I invite people to rethink and recreate their Judaism on campus, I invite them to help me recreate what the future could be together. I rely on seniors and juniors to tell me how things were but I’m also excited about the freshmen and sophomores with ideas about how things have never been done before.”