Outdoors, smaller, livestreaming: Hillels will continue to serve Jewish students



With the 2020-2021 school year about to start, Jewish Rhode Island reached out to the heads of several of Rhode Island’s Hillels with questions on what changes the pandemic has brought to Jewish campus life.

All of the schools we contacted will be open to students, but with some notable changes: these schools have all adopted hybrid classes, which combine in-person and online elements. They are also working to reduce occupancy density in dormitories and are adjusting dining protocols to meet social-distancing requirements.

The following responses come from Rabbi Joshua Bolton, executive director of Brown RISD Hillel; Amy Olson, director of the University of Rhode Island Hillel; and Jason Patch, faculty adviser, Roger Williams University.

How has your Hillel responded to the pandemic thus far? What precautions have you taken, and how have these affected student engagement and interaction?

Bolton: Brown RISD Hillel supported students in the spring to transition the entirety of its programming calendar to virtual platforms. We are preparing for the coming semester, anticipating that innovative and alternative models of engagement will be included in our pursuit of our mission of supporting and nurturing Jewish students and Jewish life on College Hill. 

Olson: When the shut-down began, most of our students were already at home. Hillel followed the state of Rhode Island and University of Rhode Island guidelines to close our building to the public and have our staff work mostly from home. But we never ceased working. We have been in touch with all of our students through text, email, phone calls and social media. For the incoming first-year students, [who are] starting at URI during this time of uncertainty, we are reaching out to them, helping them meet returning students who share the same major, and making sure that they know they have a friend and support system in Hillel. 

What sort of programming does your Hillel have planned for the fall? Do you plan to have in-person gatherings, virtual events, or both?

Olson: We will follow URI and state of R.I. guidelines to determine what sort of in-person programming we can do. We will offer a variety of virtual events and hold many online “coffee conversations” in order to build meaningful Jewish relationships with our students. We are exploring improvements to our patio space to allow for expanded outdoor programming. We are facilitating the formation of micro-communities, so that students with common interests, majors, hobbies, etc. can be brought together for online conversations and activities. Much is a work in progress at this point as the situation is very fluid.

Patch: Nothing specific to Hillel. RWU is working to create new common spaces outside. But all extra-curricular activities are still in progress. This will be difficult for Hillel, and all student organizations, as it is not possible to come together physically. But, I plan on recommending to our Hillel board to think about trying to have outdoor activities (such as a picnic Kabbalat Shabbat).

What are your Hillel’s plans for the High Holy Days?

Bolton: We are developing a rich set of platforms and landing pads, both virtual and for small groups, for students to connect with the powerful meaning of this season both safely and with depth.

Olson: It is likely that we will not be holding in-person High Holiday services. Hillel International, in partnership with Reboot, will be coordinating experiences and providing resources that will address some of our programming and educational priorities. Each experience will be designed to be viewed  “watch-party” style with students, and can be used as a stand-alone program or integrated into a menu of options we might offer.  Our hope is that each Hillel will find a way to gather students (digitally or in person) for framing, reflection, and personalized moments before and/or after the streaming services.

Patch: My family belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Providence. My daughter had her Bat Mitzvah there in June. This was the first minyan and Torah service there since March. It was complicated: 10 people (clergy, family and friends) spread out over the entire sanctuary (which I think usually holds 400+ people), everyone wearing masks when sitting, physical distancing on the bimah, and they had the windows open and AC off. The service was livestreamed. My guess is that most students will take the [High Holy] days off and watch a live stream. That’s what I expect in my own life. 

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (mschemaille@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.