Hillel directors warily eye the start of school

An event at American University Hillel before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of American University

Maryland Hillel’s fall kickoff Welcome Back Shabbat and Hillel Freshman BBQ is back. After its absence last year in the midst of the pandemic, this year’s event will take place on Aug. 31 in vaccinated style — both inside and outside the Maryland Hillel building.

As local university Hillels prepare for students to return, Hillel professionals are planning events where masks are required inside, in keeping with university safety guidelines. With the spread of the delta variant leading to a steep rise in COVID cases — particularly among young adults — and hospitalizations, Hillel staffers say they know things could also get worse and they’ll have to be flexible as they go about getting and keeping students involved in the campus Jewish community.

“We’re monitoring the virus just like the university is and we’re paying attention to what the state and the university are telling us to do,” said Shawn Laing, director of finance and operations at University of Maryland Hillel.

With less than a month before Rosh Hashanah begins on Sept. 6, Laing said Maryland Hillel hasn’t finalized plans for celebrating the high holidays, due to the changing nature of COVID-19. Maryland Hillel has reserved space at Memorial Chapel on campus for Rosh Hashanah services.

“We do have a space in the chapel reserved depending on what type of numbers we have for people registering and how we will need to socially distance,” he said. “Those kinds of factors will determine how we hold it and how many students are actually still on campus for the holidays versus going home if they live locally.”

Laing said leaders at Maryland Hillel are working on what a backup plan would look like if the university changes its guidelines and campus shuts down again.

“If the university states that you must have six feet between every person, we’ll make sure that we spread everything out by six feet, and we’ll use the additional spaces that we have to do that,” he said.

Last year, Maryland Hillel put up tents on the lawn outside the Hillel building for the high holidays. Laing said Maryland Hillel will do the same this year if the pandemic forces the closure of the building.

In pursuing his core mission, Jason Benkendorf, executive director of American University Hillel in Washington, believes Rosh Hashanah services are essential to the Jewish community at American University. His Hillel is planning to hold in-person services for Rosh Hashanah. Those attending at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on campus must wear masks.

“We certainly will be holding a number of outdoor programs to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities to connect with our community, even for somebody who may feel some anxiety around indoor gatherings,” he said.

Benkendorf said he doesn’t expect university policies to change between now and September. American University requires students to be fully vaccinated and Hillel follows that rule.

“We recognize that there are certain gatherings that may have to happen indoors that are really essential community moments and so we are putting in the work to make sure those can happen safely,” he said.

Benkendorf said he is prepared to make spacing adjustments so that students can be six feet apart during Rosh Hashanah services, if the university requires it.

Rabbi Daniel Novick, executive director of Mason Hillel at George Mason University, said high holiday plans are still in the works but he’s confident that Mason Hillel can be flexible and adjust because they have experience from last year’s fully online service.

He said his plans take into consideration the difficulties students have gone through since the pandemic began.

“The question we are thinking about and facing is that it was a really tough last year and a half for everyone, and especially for students,” Novick said. “Students were feeling alone and isolated. If I can ensure that our students are being connected to one another, that they are feeling seen and heard and finding their people, that is my main goal this year.”

Lisa Bodziner, executive director of Towson University Hillel, said she is excited to welcome back students, especially those who are new or who have not been on campus since March 2020.

“We’re just so excited and hopeful that we can be together in person at the start of the school year, but we will certainly operate with the health and wellness of our staff and students at the forefront,” she said.

Bodziner’s plan is to “follow the expectations of the university.”

Towson University requires all students to be fully vaccinated unless they are medically exempt. Students who are not vaccinated will have to wear masks indoors. Towson Hillel has the same requirements.

Rosh Hashanah at Towson will be an in-person, Conservative-style service, followed by dinner — as of now. Bodziner said the staff is still working out where the services will take place.

If another lockdown occurs, Bodziner said, Towson Hillel will opt for services via Zoom. “We are definitely prepared to be flexible,” she said.

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