In a typical year, college organizations and clubs gear up at the start of fall semester to greet freshmen at orientation activities but — thanks to the pandemic — Lauren Tiers Taylor was focused on welcoming the sophomores to campus last week, too.
“It was really great to meet the freshmen — they’re really anxious to get involved,” said Taylor, a Hillel JUC committee member and University of Pittsburgh junior majoring in political science and psychology. “I think, honestly, though, it’s the biggest difference for the sophomores. They experienced their whole first year of college online. We’re just really excited to be back on campus [and] to see the freshmen and sophomores experience that.”
In late August, Hillel JUC opened the doors to its building again to students and families after 18 months of being closed due to the pandemic, said Dan Marcus, the organization’s executive director and CEO.
Over the summer, Marcus and his team did “quite a bit of work in our building, getting it prepared and ready for opening,” he said. Everyone entering the building now must be vaccinated and wear masks at all times.
Hillel JUC kicked off its Welcome Week in style, welcoming new — and some still new to campus — students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. In the first two days alone, Marcus said, more than 180 first-year students participated in Welcome Week activities.
“We actually had more people visit and engage with us than in pre-COVID times,” Marcus told the Chronicle. “One of the lessons we learned … is how much they valued and appreciated us being open.”
Hillel JUC has been hosting these kinds of Welcome Week activities — including meet and greets, brunches, trivia nights and special Shabbat celebrations — for 20 years, as long as Marcus has been heading the organization. This year, they combined the usual activities with the Jeannette C. Kalson Memorial Student Leadership Retreat, where students from Pitt and CMU took in a full day of “learning, bonding and leadership,” Marcus said.
Part of the retreat took place at the Hillel JUC building near the Oakland/Squirrel Hill border, while other activities, such as physical work on ropes courses, were held at Camp Guyasuta in O’Hara Township.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council also took part in the Kalson leadership retreat, speaking about student concerns as well as relevant campus life issues such as how anti-Israel political discussions can morph into forms of antisemitism.
“We wanted to reinforce our commitment to students,” said Laura Cherner, director of the CRC. “I definitely saw that there was a level of excitement about seeing their peers after being virtual for a year.”
Hillel also sponsored a “coffee blitz” last Friday during Pitt’s first day of classes, where volunteers handed out free cups of joe at the Fifth Avenue Starbucks in Oakland to first-year students. The organization capped off the week with a “CMU Jewish Life Welcome” and an “Newish and Jewish brunch” at Pitt. Both of the latter events shared more ways for new students to get involved in Jewish life on campus.
“The enthusiasm and the joy of students being back together in person, in a safe way, is a boon to our leadership at Hillel,” Marcus said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.