The COVID-19 pandemic presented some unique challenges for Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
Hillel, whose mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish college students, could no longer host student-led Shabbat or holiday experiences in person, and long-standing programs like Challah for Hunger were put on hold. As the ethos of Hillel has always been to facilitate student-led activities and programs, according to its executive director and CEO Daniel Marcus, its priority throughout the pandemic was to continue to support students and keep them connected.
Unable to meet in large groups, the organization pivoted to meet the needs of students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, Marcus explained.
“We knew that during the pandemic, Shabbat and holidays were going to continue to be a vital part of the Jewish campus experience,” he said. So, instead of in-person Shabbat meals and services, Hillel created Shabbat2Go bags, each containing a full Shabbat meal, ritual items and links to online gatherings.
The bags were distributed by student leaders, six feet apart and following all safety guidelines outside the Hillel JUC building on Forbes Avenue and on the CMU and Pitt campuses.
“What made this so special,” Marcus said, “was that it still provided the moment of human connection with our staff and student leadership. For the students picking up Shabbat2Go, the triangle of human interaction, the delicious food and the connection to the Jewish community was very powerful.”
Like other organizations, Hillel used technology to continue programs that otherwise might have been put on hiatus during the pandemic. Marcus pointed to Challah for Hunger as an example. Students were provided with the dough and other ingredients and then connected through Zoom while they braided and baked the bread. On one occasion, more than 100 students participated.
“It showed how important it was for us to continue to provide an active and communal opportunity for students,” Marcus said.
Hillel’s staff and student leaders dedicate much of their time and energy to identifying and making connections with Jewish students on campus, Marcus explained. They often meet one-on-one with students for coffee and conversations.
“There were times during the pandemic when we could still meet outside — distanced — and have those conversations,” Marcus said. “We continued to reach out and engage and meet with as many Jewish students as possible.”
Last year, Hillel JUC leaders met with more than 1,000 students who engaged in at least one activity under the organization’s umbrella.
University of Pittsburgh student Eva J. Shterengarts knows the value of Hillel. The rising senior said that growing up, she was the only Jewish student she knew of in the Mars Area School District.
“I didn’t have a strong connection to Judaism,” she said. “I identified as Jewish; I just didn’t have the community around me.”
After celebrating Shabbat with Hillel, Shterengarts immediately felt more connected to her Jewish identity, and spent her freshman year attending services and other events hosted by the organization. During her sophomore year, she joined Hillel’s student board, and last year she was elected its president.
Pre-pandemic, Shterengarts said, she spent her time on the board focused on how many events Hillel could create and host. It was difficult this past year, she said, to reimagine how Hillel could continue to create connections with students, especially freshman.
“They had never even been to the Hillel building,” she said, “and we still wanted to bring the essence of Hillel to them.”
To further that goal, Shterengarts created the “Big Little” program, matching first-year students with those in upper classes who had common majors and interests and could offer a personal connection and serve as a resource.
Although the pandemic year was challenging, Marcus said Hillel JUC leaders learned some valuable lessons on “how we can be even more nimble and flexible in the way we provide programs and activities and community gathering opportunities.”
Marcus stressed that those lessons don’t preclude in-person activities, which students are anxious to resume.
“The pandemic has taught us, though, that we don’t have to all be in the room to be communal.”
Hillel JUC leadership is evaluating how to build on some of the successes it had during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, the organization distributed an average of 190 Shabbat2Go bags each week during the school year — at times, that number jumped to as high as 250 bags — meaning the organization touched more students than it could on a traditional, pre-pandemic Shabbat, Marcus said.
“So now, we’re working on figuring out how to ensure students still have the opportunity to gather in person and be a part of that in-the-room-together community, but also think about ways we can distribute and work with students on a smaller scale — how do we marry the best of both worlds.”
Shterengarts said her focus will be on freshmen and sophomores this year.
“We know they definitely missed a lot of the things I was lucky enough to experience when I first came to Pitt,” she said.
The Hillel president said regardless of whether activities occur online, in person or through a hybrid format, individual relationships will still be fundamental for the organization.
“It’s important to make sure we’re connecting with everyone,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.