Hillel worked hard at creating a virtual community this year

April 2021
Judith Dworkin

Life changed very suddenly for McMaster Hillel students on March 17, 2020.  I remember sitting with the Hillel student president and saying that I thought everything was going to shut down, and that the formal that we had planned for the following week would have to be cancelled.  Sure enough, a few hours later, the announcements started coming in.  

Students have had a very different academic year, one that they have never experienced before. There has been isolation, lack of extracurricular activities and little to no in-person contact. During a recent McMaster Hillel student executive meeting on Zoom, I told the students that we are in the business of community so we need to think creatively about what it feels like to be part of this community.  How does one do this in a pandemic, when campus is closed and when we don’t see each other at all? How do we know how each of us are doing? Are we alone? Are we lonely? Are we coping? Do we bring our best selves to a Zoom and then grapple alone with our worries? These are the questions that I struggle with when trying to support the Jewish student community.

From the beginning, Hillel pulled out all the pandemic stops to connect with students. Shabbat in a box and delivered to you? Yes! Zoom games night? Yes! Mental health and wellness box? Sign up here! We have you covered. These programs and services were created to keep our community together while at our own homes. We are able to connect through a screen and eat dinner, not together, but knowing that there were more than 70 students enjoying the same meal in the comfort of their own homes as well. And we connected face to face over Zoom before and after, while enjoying our rugelach, of course.

All of these programs are great, but the individual connections are even more paramount. A text to a student to check in, a happy birthday wish on their special day or a condolence call to those who have lost loved ones. For me, it’s about making the extra effort to make a student feel special. Does the student have dietary needs that we can fulfill and can we make this student feel seen by making a special box for them? Did a student forget to sign up for a Shabbat box, and do we have an extra meal for them anyway? Can we put an extra dessert in a bag, just because we know that student had a tough week? Even though we are in Hamilton, can we make an extra effort so that our Toronto or out-of-province students also feel a part of our community by sending them mailings and deliveries so they feel part of our programming? Having inclusive programming is a cornerstone of Hillel’s mandate. In a pandemic, that’s even more true.

There are so many feelings of missing the social connection and of loss.  A weekly bagel lunch was something that students looked forward to, a chance to hang out and eat lunch together.  Trying to replicate that on Zoom isn’t the same and that is something we have been missing a lot.  The feelings of loss will take some time to unpack.  There is also the loss of living in residence for a first year or a graduation ceremony for graduates.  Important milestones in a young person’s life have changed and these events can’t be replicated in the same way.   

I miss seeing the students. I miss hanging out in the Hillel office and chatting over a bagel and cracking jokes over the lineup at the toaster. I miss bumping into students on campus, catching up on their lives, and being part of a place where they come for comfort and support (and food!). With all the programming and outreach we have done in the past 10 months, I hope that we can continue to maintain our virtual community, and that even though we are not in person, our students know we are still here for them. While the medium may have changed, the sentiment certainly has not.

Judith Dworkin is the director of McMaster Hillel.