Washington-area Hillels are preparing for a new normal this fall

Members of Jewish organizations at the University of Maryland came together at Hillel’s annual barbecue in 2017. (Photo by Rebecca Feidelman)

Every fall, Hillel at the University of Maryland kicks off the new school year with a terrapin-sized barbecue. Last year, 1,200 students attended.

That was last year. “This year, we’re obviously not doing that,” said Ari Israel, the Jewish student agency’s executive director on the College Park campus.

Hillels across the Washington region are adapting their programs to coronavirus. Most events and programs will take place online, but U-Md. Hillel is working to offer some in-person events as well. Instead of a large gathering, picture several simultaneous in-person events, Israel said. Contact tracing could follow the event, if someone becomes infected.

It’s safe to say that the annual barbecue is out this year. “I don’t think we’re going to pull off 120 10-person picnics,” Israel said.


But what about turning a large gathering for a shofar blowing into several smaller ones around campus? It’s on the table. Meal plans will be offered for both take-out and limited indoor dining. And, weather permitting, there will be limited outdoor prayer or Shabbat services.

“We are part and parcel of our university fabric. So the university is opening and feels that they can open and be safe. And we are going to mimic and echo that sentiment,” Israel said. “I’m not going to say it’s not a challenge. It is certainly a challenge to be able to continually evolve. But that’s important.”

George Mason University Hillel is also aiming to provide in-person events, but the vast majority of its programming will remain virtual. Executive Director Na’ama Gold said limited in-person Shabbat dinners will be held every other Friday. Students can pick up pre-packed Shabbat dinners from the Hillel office and attend an in-person community dinner or participate in an online program elsewhere. The Hillel is also expanding its staff to better help students, adding a part-time rabbi and a rabbinical intern for a total of four staffers.

Virtual programs at George Mason Hillel in Fairfax includes movie nights, speaker events and workshops. Hillels at George Washington University, American University and Gallaudet University, all in the District, plan to host similar events as they go entirely virtual this fall.

“The days of a large Shabbat dinner, unfortunately, for now, are on pause,” said GW Hillel Director Adena Kirstein. “You have to stay relevant to [continue] making meaning in people’s lives. We need that now more than ever.”

One of the pros of online programming is accessibility. This spring, Hillel at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing, became one of four founding members of the Virtual ASL Shabbat Coalition. The group livestreams an ASL Shabbat service once a month. Gallaudet Hillel board chair Rhea Morgenstern said the convenience of virtual programming has the potential to draw in previously reluctant students.

“I know that many deaf Jewish students haven’t had full access to Jewish youth groups, Jewish camps, congregation communities and they may not feel very connected to their Jewish identity,” Morgenstern said. “And I think making a Jewish experience just a click away might make this the time when they decide to really explore that identity.”

A concern of many Hillels is reaching out to students who have become isolated at home. Kirstein expects little participation from first-year students who are new to Hillel, but increased participation from students who are already familiar with its programming. She said it’s more challenging to engage new students without in-person events and activities. The days of handing out bagels on campus to curious prospective members are now gone. American University Hillel Executive Director Jason Benkendorf also shares these concerns.

“We at Hillel believe that we’re in the relationship business and, obviously, it is easier to initiate and develop relationships when you can sit with someone,” Benkendorf said. “It is certainly going to be more challenging. There’s no way to recreate the experience of a massive welcome barbecue on the quad online.”

Benkendorf’s focus this fall won’t be on the quantity of the students engaged, but the quality of their engagement. He foresees the potential for “Zoom fatigue” to set in with students having to look at screens all day for classes. There’s also the thought of increased competition with other activities that have also moved online. So Benkendorf’s goal is to have high-quality programs in order to compete for students’ attention.

Several Hillels are looking into sending care packages to better engage students. George Mason Hillel wants to send DIY Shabbat kits and books for a virtual book club. American Hillel is exploring sending ingredients and recipes for an online cooking class. And Gallaudet is looking into sending challah, possibly a shofar and some Gallaudet Hillel swag, like a sweatshirt. Mentorship programs connecting freshmen to upperclassmen are another means of reaching students. A student leader at George Washington Hillel is working to launch such a program while U-Md. Hillel and American Hillel already have similar programs in place that have been moved online.

George Washington Hillel is also connecting students virtually to alumni through a mentorship program launched over the summer. Two cohorts with 25 students total participated in projects, met with alumni mentors and attended weekly professional development events. Kirstein believes alumni are more willing to get involved since the pandemic, as many are stuck at home with little to do. Also, GW Hillel will be unveiling its new building on campus in October. The pandemic did not lead to any delays in construction, but the building will remain closed until it is safe to use.

Kirstein sees the new school year as an opportunity to “reset culture.” She said some students participate in campus Jewish-life in order to please family back home, commemorating the High Holidays in the same manner as their parents or grandparents did. But since that’s no longer an option, Kirstein said it gives students a chance to think about how they really want to connect to their Judaism.

“Because you’re disconnected from a community, you’re having to think with much deeper intention,” Kirstein said. “There’s space for them to say, ‘What does that mean as a Jewish adult for me to make those choices? And what do I really need as nourishment, spiritually and communally?”

Gold shared similar thoughts, saying the current circumstance will prompt students at George Mason Hillel to learn to perform aspects of Judaism, like Shabbat, for themselves.

“Even though it’s going to be a challenging year to do our traditional programs, I think it’s an excellent opportunity to actually teach our students how to be independent Jews.”

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