“What a week it has been!” University of Maryland Hillel’s executive director, Ari Israel, wrote in an email to families on Feb. 12.
COVID-19 cases were spiking on the College Park campus, students living in La Plata Hall were ordered to restrict their activities for 10 days or return home and, in what Israel called Hillel’s “village,” students were adjusting to life in quarantine.
“Over twenty students from our [Jewish] community have tested positive and over four-score are in quarantine,” Israel wrote. “They say it takes a village. Well, COVID19 has overtaken ours, but our village is working together to take it back.”
Students are tired and frazzled, he told Washington Jewish Week.
Hillel is trying to un-frazzle them.
Abigail Elson had just started her freshman year last fall when she was placed into quarantine. A student on her dorm floor tested positive for COVID so Elson had to self-isolate for two weeks.
“It definitely wasn’t how I thought I’d spend my first week of college,” Elson said last week.
The pandemic had left her isolated, physically and spiritually. She reached out to U-Md. Hillel with her dilemma. Soon a package arrived with Shabbat candles, challah rolls, grape juice, some candy and a “really sweet handwritten note.”
“Even though I couldn’t be at Hillel in person, it felt like they were still caring about me and caring for me, even though I was in quarantine,” Elson said. “And it really felt like a piece of home.”
Since fall term, Maryland Hillel staff and students have delivered care packages to students in quarantine, which the school requires students to do for 10 to 14 days after coming in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID. Those testing positive are moved to a separate housing unit on campus.
To help with the loneliness, Hillel created an online forum where students can request “Tender, Loving, Covid,” or TLC, packages. And it isn’t always comfort food and candles that the students need.
“We bought soap and Chobani yogurt for one student and paper towels for another and garbage bags for a third,” said Israel. “As trivial as it is, these students are just in need. So we are there to help.”
More than 200 TLC packages have been delivered to quarantined students with the help of 40 student volunteers. Elson, long out of quarantine,has volunteered to deliver a few packages.
Another volunteer is sophomore Jessica Edelman. She can relate to those in isolation — she got COVID while she was home in New Jersey for winter break.
“So I was fortunate to have my family help out. And we all got better. But the students that are on campus currently getting sick, it’s definitely harder being alone and having to care for themselves.”
Edelman decided to help deliver packages on her regular walks around campus.
“I love to go on walks to get out of my room between online classes. So I figured since I do go on walks, I could walk to Hillel [and] easily walk back to a dorm,” Edelman said.
One recipient was freshman Yakir Kanefsky. A few days into winter term he learned that a friend tested positive for COVID. That sent Kanefsky into quarantine. Hillel sent him a deck of cards and plenty of snacks, which Kanefsky said brought him comfort and made him feel a bit less lonely.
Hillel was “always in touch with me, [asking] whether [the package] came or not,” he said. “So that was also nice just knowing that there are people that are still thinking about me.”
Kanefsky also wanted to do something productive while in isolation. So he challenged himself to run 10 miles indoors and asked friends and family to donate money to Free WheelChair Mission, a nonprofit that designs and manufactures wheelchairs for people in developing countries. He’s done similar charity runs in the past, but never indoors.
“I decided to look at the whole thing as a challenge and a test on myself, like to see what I could do with this situation,” Kanefsky said. “I feel like that kind of mentality really helped me feel empowered rather than scared and anxious.”
Kanefsky raised about $1,200 for the nonprofit. And after coming out of quarantine, he made a motivational video to encourage others to feel differently about self-isolation.
“I’ve really started to be a believer in the idea that the perspective you have on something is more powerful than the outcome itself,” he said. “And I felt that I proved that to myself in quarantine.”