By Lisa Woolfson
It was less than a month ago that college students all over the country were sent home to finish their classes online while waiting in self-quarantine for the coronavirus to pass.
For Jewish college students, that meant no more in-person Hillel or other Jewish organizations that they regularly participated in. Many students quickly missed their Jewish college communities.
On March 15, Ari Hoffman, a junior at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who is involved in his campus Hillel, created the Facebook group Zoom University Hillel.
Hoffman says he misses his Jewish community at school and thought other students would be, too. The group is “just a way to connect to others through another outlet.”
It began with friends inviting friends and Hoffman thought it would end up having a few hundred people. But the group went viral and, as of the writing of this article, it has close to 13,000 members.
Some people are even selling Zoom University Hillel merchandise. Avery Ezra Einhorn, who grew up in Washington and goes to UCLA, sells sweatshirts and T-shirts with a “Zoom University Hillel” logo on them.
He made an online store to sell his merchandise. “After the store went live I found all the other people who had the exact same idea,” he says. Einhorn said he will be donating half the proceeds to charity.
People in the Facebook group talk about everything from challah recipes to how to deal with mental illness during the coronavirus quarantine. The group has even led to Zoom speed dating.
Many members of Zoom University Hillel go to school in the District, Virginia and Maryland. Shauna Kaplan is a freshman at the University of Mary Washington. She found out about Zoom University Hillel from her twin sister, who was invited to the group by a friend. “It’s connecting us more with other students our age who are going through similar circumstances,” Kaplan says.
Kaplan is involved in Jewish life at her school and attends Jewish Student Association events and plans on running for a board position. She misses her Jewish community at school, but living at home, there’s more Jewish life she’s missing out on.
“I also miss the Jewish community here where I live because a lot of the synagogues are doing online stuff and you can’t actually go to services.” she says.
Kaplan says Zoom University Hillel is helping her with these temporary losses.
“As much as we don’t always talk about straight-up religious stuff, Judaism, as much as it is a religion, is also a culture. So I think that cultural part of it is definitely substituting for the normal exposure that I would be having by going to meetings or going to synagogue.”
On Zoom University Hillel, people are able to raise issues that are unique to the quarantine. One thread asked how observant Jews with non-observant parents are dealing with living at home. Other posts are lighter: “Latkes: sour cream or applesauce?” Many people also discuss favorite books, movies and TV shows.
Jacob Horowitz goes to George Mason University and is a junior theater major. Horowitz is on the board of George Mason Hillel and was invited by another board member to Zoom University Hillel. He considered not joining because he’s not particularly observant, but ultimately decided to join anyway.
“I’m patrilineally Jewish — my dad is and my mom is not — and so I worry a lot about being excluded or being told I’m not Jewish enough,” he says. “But I actually found another group of patrilineal Jews who are posting, which made me realize that it doesn’t matter.”
Horowitz thinks the group has an overall positive impact on the Jewish college community. “There’s only so much an individual college Hillel can do right now” he says, adding that group members invite people without a Shabbat service to attend to join theirs via Zoom call.
He misses the Jewish community at his school and says that this subgroup has helped with that. Horowitz adds that the group is “almost a reconnection of my faith in a weird way”.
“I never went to a summer camp, but it’s what I imagined a summer camp would be — where it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, remember that time at Zoom University?’”
Lisa Woolfson is a student at the University of Maryland and a member of the Reform Board at Maryland Hillel.