On a main wall in the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, a famous quote from Hillel the Elder is displayed, stating: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
As I sit in the dining room of my childhood home, which has become my office, library, and classroom, I realize I might be more dependent on Hillel JUC here than I am while at school. During this global pandemic that has caused us all to be inside our homes for the foreseeable future, Hillel JUC has worked harder than ever to ensure all Jewish students are safe, happy, and able to practice Judaism.
The staff members of Hillel JUC have, like Hillel the Elder proclaimed, created a virtual space to be ourselves, and to be for others, from the comfort (or lack thereof) of our own homes. During a time when everything is uncertain, it appears that now more than ever the Hillel JUC has a job to do. Hillel the Elder would say, “If not now, when?” However, I say, if not especially now, then when? Because of the work that Hillel JUC has done in the past few weeks, Jewish young adults have been able to get the resources necessary to practice Judaism and have been provided with a uniquely Jewish space to virtually connect with peers and staff.
Before the pandemic, Pittsburgh students were often found studying in the cafe and lounge on the first floor of Hillel JUC, meeting and learning and praying on the second floor, and celebrating Shabbat or baking challah on the third floor. While students can no longer spread out among the floors of Hillel’s building and seek comfort in the Jewish environment, Hillel JUC has worked hard to virtually recreate its three floors, along with endless activities and learning opportunities, through the screens on our phones and laptops. Through Instagram Live and Zoom, students have been able to attend Havdalah services, watch matzo brei tutorials and even immerse themselves in a virtual play.
Ariel Walovitch, the 24-year-old director of engagement at Hillel JUC, who created a group of social media ambassadors for the organization called the “mazelrazzi,” has had her interns create content from home that reach other students. Being able to watch Jewish home tours and Instagram story takeovers from students has been incredibly entertaining, but more importantly, has been very comforting in a time where everything is uncertain. Having uniquely Jewish spaces at Pitt is an important aspect of many Jewish students’ college experiences, and Hillel JUC has made sure that these spaces remain available, even if that means they’re simply on your cell phone.
While students were still in Oakland, a day did not go by where a Jewish student wasn’t taken on a coffee date with a Hillel staff member or intern – there even was a table at Starbucks with a “reserved for Hillel” sign. Although students cannot meet at the reserved high top on Forbes Avenue, various interns and staff members have had virtual coffee dates. These coffee dates, while providing a comfortable Jewish space, also allow students to kvetch and kvell as they please, with someone who is willing to listen.
Outside of the Jewish environment that Hillel is known for creating, its leaders have also worked hard to help students with simple tasks of living. Isaac Minkoff, the Israel coordinator for Hillel JUC, has led cooking tutorials for students who are isolated alone and seeking guidance. While a cooking lesson might not seem uniquely Jewish on the surface, it exemplifies the building of community, which is inherently a very Jewish thing to do; in Judaism, there is an emphasis on kehilla, or community, and by reaching out to people who may be having a harder time right now, Hillel professionals are building a virtual, practically palpable community for those who wish to be a part of it.
Similarly to the ways in which our Jewish ancestors turned to Yiddish plays and writing in times that were distressful, Hillel JUC put on a Passover play via Zoom that allowed students to get involved, get creative, and learn more about their heritage. For some, this play was a distraction from the outside world, and for others, it was a way to ground themselves spiritually. No matter the reason that students chose to get involved, everyone left smiling. If Hillel JUC has done anything, they’ve put smiles on students’ faces, and everyone seems to be thankful for it.
Because of the immense efforts that the Hillel JUC has taken during this pandemic, when students are finally able to rejoice and pray and spend time together again in person, their relationships will be even stronger. Jewish connection, they have proved, can thrive, even when the highest of mechitzahs, or barriers, are facing us. Their efforts, sometimes as simple as Facebook posts, have brought the Pittsburgh Jewish student community together in unprecedented ways. PJC
Emily Rosen is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh.