The pandemic has hit college students hard over the last couple of years, impeding learning, disrupting athletics, and isolating them from the friends and communities they love.
Jewish life on campus faced the same fate. Services were held online or hybrid. Colleges offered a limited selection of social events that were marked by capacity limitations.
Perhaps no time of year illustrated those changes as dramatically as the High Holiday period. Many synagogue services were forced into new outdoor locations, some students spent their first High Holidays away from home praying in their rooms in front of computers, and it was nearly impossible to connect and build community in the best way Jews know how – by sharing a meal.
Rabbis and other Jewish leaders were left wondering what would come next as pandemic restrictions began to ease.
“There was a small part of my mind that was saying ‘I wonder if, after a couple years of really disrupted community life, people will want to come back in the same way,’” acknowledged Rabbi Jonah Winer, director of Religious Life at Tufts University Hillel.
For Jewish students, though, the High Holiday themes of rebirth and renewal are hard to ignore, as they intersect at the crossroads of a new school year. And this year, organized Jewish life is renewing itself as well.
Colleges across the state are organizing two, three, and, in some cases, four different minyans for the High Holidays, as well as social events centered around conversations about forgiveness and resolutions. And, of course, meals for the entire community to share together are back, too.
“The overwhelming response of students to what we’ve been doing and helping them build has really sold me on a fundamentally optimistic view of Jewish community life,” Winer said.
Tufts is not alone in this trend. Hillel officials at Brandeis, UMass-Amherst and Northeastern University describe record-breaking engagement and attendance at Shabbat services, dinners and welcome back events.
“It’s even more clear to me that students have a hunger for community,” said Rabbi Aaron Fine, executive director of UMass Amherst Hillel. UMass-Amherst reached more than 1,300 students through services and events over the course of the past year as they adapted to pandemic restrictions. Fine and other UMass Hillel leaders are expecting those students to show up to their High Holiday services this year as well.
A similar story is playing out at Brandeis and Northeastern, as the students who relied on Hillel for their communal life during the pandemic can attend services, meals and social events in full force again.
Each university plans to take on the challenge of engaging large numbers of students. While all plan to hold several services for students observing different branches of Judaism, the number of offerings will depend on available clergy and student service leaders.
On the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Brandeis will hold events focused on forgiveness and resolutions. Tufts has selected the theme “Sacred Stirrings” for each of its services and events, highlighting personal responsibility and the rebirth of communal relationships. Other schools will center holiday sermons and conversations around climate change and communal impact.
What their services have in common is an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of Judaism, and the ability – and willingness – to connect with students in many different ways.
Jewish students appear to be finding their communities again. A visit to the Brandeis Hillel office reveals that offices are full of students, laughing, spending time together, and full of life.
It’s clear to see that Jewish life on Massachusetts campuses is renewing itself. Students are participating in Hillel events oriented toward self-reflection, having conversations about the nature of human change, communal and individual responsibility, and the nature of their changing relationships with God.
UMass Hillel constructed an outdoor prayer space adjacent to its offices, and is planning to incorporate outdoor services into both Shabbat and Holiday services for as long as the weather permits. “One nice silver lining [to the pandemic] has been that we’ve started doing more things outdoors,” Fine said.
“We learned about the importance of in-person events,” said Gilad Skolnick, executive director at Northeastern University Hillel. “There’s something about eating together that is very powerful.”
Although Brandeis experienced less disruption last year than some other schools because of its small student body and COVID testing policies, it’s been somewhat of a struggle for Jewish activities to ramp up again in person, given how limited social interaction has been during the pandemic.
“Things were slower in the beginning of the year, and all these people had to learn how to plan in-person events,” said Brandeis sophomore Jesse Levisohn, who coordinates social and cultural events for Brandeis Hillel. “This year we definitely … had a much better idea of what to expect.”
“One thing that struck me is how our Jewish community was able to keep on going,” Skolnick said. “Last year and the year before really reflected the resilience of Judaism and the Jewish people.”
Noam Gumerman is a senior at Brandeis University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org