The absence of familiar college orientation techniques, such as tabling, Shabbat meals and other in-person activities is requiring Hillel JUC to creatively adapt to COVID-19-related challenges.
Although the Oakland-based organization quickly transitioned from physical host to online storehouse and facilitator for Jewish connection last March, attracting freshmen and other new students on campus this fall will necessitate additional measures, said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO.
Opening the Forbes Avenue building for a first-year welcome bagel brunch, or hosting Shabbat meals with 250 people, is no longer possible, continued Marcus. “We’re going to have to meet the students in multiple and different ways,” and doing so is going to present “all of these increased costs.”
Recognizing the difficulties ahead, Hillel JUC was one of several organizations to approach the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for assistance. In response, the umbrella organization presented Hillel JUC a $25,000 emergency grant for “development and implementation of a new orientation strategy to engage Jewish college students in a socially distanced and/or virtual campus environment,” said Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
Supporting Hillel JUC represents the Federation’s commitment toward ensuring a Jewish future, continued Hertzman. Throughout life people often “set habits that are persistent through all of that life stage; so when you have a baby and maybe start lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night, that tends to be a thing all throughout while your kids are at home.” Similarly, attracting Jewish university students “when they first get to campus is critical” because without those measures “the long-term effect would be fewer Jewish students aware of Hillel when they come in, and therefore fewer Jewish students involved in the four or five years that they are in college.”
The potential fallout of unengaged Jewish college students is among larger communal COVID-19-related concerns.
Within the slew of challenges facing Jewish organizations, there is the difficulty of doing business when in-person activities are no longer possible, but “one of the problems of the pandemic that may not be so obvious to people is the risk of community members withdrawing from Jewish life,” said Hertzman. “Aside from health and safety, that’s the biggest risk.”
When area universities shuttered last spring, Hillel JUC continued providing digital connections for students to gather, celebrate and learn through its Hillel@Home platform. Those efforts proved successful, but as students begin the process of returning to campus, establishing new relationships will be especially challenging, explained Marcus.
Last week the University of Pittsburgh announced that, apart from a phased reopening beginning on Aug. 11 and continuing throughout the month, all students at its Oakland campus, including those living off campus, will be required to complete a 14-day shelter-in-place period before attending in-person classes.
The Federation’s grant arrived at an important time, as the funds ensure “we can welcome first-year students, whatever the configuration, to our campuses in a creative and innovative way, and that even in these different and more challenging scenarios, we can still make sure that every Jewish freshman has a chance to connect to their identity and community,” said Marcus.
The $25,000 grant to Hillel JUC represents a portion of “a little more than $1.1 million dollars that has gone to pandemic relief,” said Hertzman, who added that the Community Campaign, a Jewish Federation emergency relief fund, other foundations and private donors, were among the variety of sources tapped for funding.
For months, the pandemic has required Hillel JUC to pivot and reimagine what programming best meets each student’s needs.
With school ready to begin again, there is a renewed charge of identifying students and providing opportunities for Jewish engagement, said Marcus: “The funds and resources from the Federation enables us to be thoughtful and creative.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.