Hillel JUC students and staff strengthen relationships during pandemic
COVID-19Hillel JUC

Hillel JUC students and staff strengthen relationships during pandemic

College moves off campus but Jewish life continues online.

The Pitt Hillel Board discusses virtual programming for students over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Ryan Covitt
The Pitt Hillel Board discusses virtual programming for students over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Ryan Covitt

With the pandemic forcing college students indoors and off-campus while still craving Jewish connection among their peers, a team of social media influencers calling themselves the MazelRazzis are among those to the rescue.

The MazelRazzis, and other Hillel JUC students, circulated a three-minute video last week to Hillel JUC students sheltering at home titled, “MazelRazzi Home Decor.” The production mirrored “MTV Cribs,” a television show that provides viewers access to celebrities’ homes, by providing tours of students’ houses along with specific mention of objects including hamsahs, menorahs, a ketubah and seder plate.

“People love home tours and (with this video) you’re getting an inside look at people’s houses and what they’re doing during this time,” said Samantha Walter, a MazelRazzi intern and University of Pittsburgh senior studying psychology and religious studies.

The video was also a helpful mechanism for encouraging students to find the Jewish “within the comfort of their own home,” said Ariel Walovitch, Hillel JUC’s director of engagement.

Short videos designed for TikTok, Instagram or Facebook sharing have facilitated connection during this period of social distancing, such as one in which Hillel JUC students and staff filmed themselves pulling various Jewish items, such as a kiddush cup, a piece of artwork and a shofar, out of their refrigerators while Israeli music played in the background.

“We’re just trying to spread the positive as much as we can on social media,” said Walovitch. “That’s what’s so great about social media is that a lot of what I’ve always been doing is connecting with students online so the pandemic doesn’t stop us from doing that.”

Melanie Silver reads from her Passover play script. Photo courtesy of Ryan Covitt

Prior to the pandemic upending campus life, Hillel JUC functioned as a home base. With its ability to house regular programming, education and social connectivity, the Forbes Avenue building was a center for students to enjoy a Jewish college experience. Although many of Hillel’s staff and students are now hundreds of miles from the brick and glass paneled structure in Oakland, now temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19, they nonetheless are continuing to meet, study and engage in meaningful Jewish life through video and messaging.

“Believe it or not, building community online was already a pretty big part of what we were doing — just because of the way young people interact and the way they make meaning and connections,” said Danielle Kranjec, Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator. “So in terms of having an apparatus to communicate with people, we already had everything in place. Basically what we’ve done is just taken everything and dialed it up.”

“What we’re seeing is that students are able to connect and learn through these social media and Zoom platforms, and that these are a lifeline. The relationships that students and staff have with one to another are critical,” said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO.

Kranjec has brought Torah and Jewish thought to Pittsburgh’s college students for years. These days, she’s doing so online, and between sessions dedicated to Glückel of Hameln (a late 17th-century/ early 18th-century Yiddish diarist) and Pauline Wengeroff (a 19th-century Jewish Russian memoirist), Kranjec is meeting increased demands.

“The students need me in a different way than they did before,” she said. “When students were having access points to various kinds of community, their Jewish community was just one part of a constellation of how they created meaning in their lives, but I think in times of distress students really look to their heritage for a lot of strength.”

“Hillel has a way of engaging students that other organizations that they’re a part of can’t,” noted Walovitch. “We can do something for them that their club sport or Greek organization maybe can’t, and that’s just spiritual support,”

Marni Cantor reads from her Passover play script. Photo courtesy of Ryan Covitt

The videos and classes may represent Hillel JUC’s commitment to providing at-home college students a plethora of content, but the beauty of what’s being offered is the ability to contribute, explained Eli Sigman, Pitt Hillel president: Students are creating their own Jewish spaces online “so even though we’re physically distant from each other, students can feel like they’re back at home, back at Pitt, back in their Jewish community at Hillel JUC.”

For example, a student-written Passover play allowed multiple interested parties to perform various roles online. The April 6 event was showcased via Zoom and brought students together from across the country, explained Ryan Covitt, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore studying communications.

Covitt, whose responsibility to the organization’s student board is overseeing social media, is currently in Cleveland, Ohio. Sigman is in Wilmington, Delaware, and Walter is in Pittsburgh. The students have been in regular contact with Walovitch, who is in Framingham, Massachusetts, Kranjec, who is in Pittsburgh, and other Hillel JUC staff.

Those interactions are not uncommon. During this recent period, Marcus has heard of “hundreds of conversations” between students and staff. They’re checking in on each other and “ensuring there’s a support network,” he said.

Although they haven’t finalized their numbers, Walovitch and Walter both noted that Hillel JUC has experienced increased engagement during the pandemic.

Such desire for Jewish connection bodes well for days to come, explained Marcus: “When the pandemic is God willingly over, and when we as a society have moved on to the next phase, what we’re doing with this platform, with these relationships, will ensure there is Jewish leadership and a future because when we’re back together physically in person these connections won’t be lost. They’ll be strengthened.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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