Hillels in Maryland Nurture Mental Health During COVID-19 Pandemic

It was early September. The semester had barely started when Sophie, Gansky, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, found herself quarantining with her roommates in their off-campus apartment.  

Gansky had been exposed to COVID-19. Now, stuck in an apartment for two weeks, she was surprised one day to open her apartment door to find a package. 

“Here, we were, isolating, when we discovered this amazing care package, filled with Israeli snacks and chocolate, challah, grape juice and more. It came from Maryland Hillel,” she recalled. “It made me realize that someone, other than my parents, were concerned about how we were doing.” 

These “Tender Loving Covid” packages, which would soon include chicken soup, would soon show up around campus, delivered to those students who were in quarantine by a squad of more than 30 committed student volunteers.  

Emotional Wellbeing Meets Jewish Connection at College Campuses 

In a year in which the norm was upended, when college students went virtual or stayed at home, the Hillels stepped in. Recognizing the negative implications of a world gone astray – of social isolation on young adults – they merged building Jewish connection and identity with ways to ensure connectedness and emotional wellbeing. 

Lisa Bodziner, Towson Hilell’s Executive Director, began planning for these changes last spring. When summer arrived, she and her staff were on the phone, contacting students. The network even kicked into gear, reaching out to recent grads who had lost their jobs, offering employment help. 

“During the pandemic, every population has been vulnerable, including students. For many, particularly freshmen and transfers, who may not know a soul, our goal was to nurture mental health and Jewish identity while building social connection. We tried our hardest to be that home away from home,” she says. 

Ethan Litofsky, a senior transfer student to Towson, was on Towson Hillel’s new student Zoom call. A native Baltimorean, he was now starting at a new school, while living at home. 

“I remember, after the call I stayed on the line with Lisa. I had sung in high school and college and asked her about creating a choir for Shabbat services. Since then, we created a choir with several students, and we sang together, wearing masks and standing six feet apart, for the virtual Shabbat services. It has been a great way for me to meet new students, while doing something I really enjoy.” 

For universities like Towson and Goucher, that went fully remote, with little or no on-campus living, programming was also reimagined.  

“We threw the rules out the window,” said Beth Vander Stoep, Goucher Hillel’s Global Jewish Life and Engagement Coordinator. “We asked ourselves, how can we foster connection. We wanted our students to know we were there for them.” 

As part of that effort, not only did Goucher Hillel check in on the students, but they reimagined programming, even going beyond virtual experiences.  

They created special packages, mailed to homes. There was the “Hillel to Go” Shabbat box, complete with challah cover, challah recipe, kiddush cup and even a grocery gift card to purchase Shabbat dinner, that went to all Jewish students in the database. And, the wellness boxes sent out around critical periods like midterms. 

Added Rabbi Josh Snyder, Goucher Hillel Executive Director: “Many of our students who were living at home come from non-traditional Jewish homes. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we help them weave their college selves in with their home selves? How can we support them and help them feel connected?’” 

For those who wanted a deeper dive, there were Jewish Learning and Israel Fellowships, that helped small cohorts of students find connections while exploring Jewish learning. 

One of those small groups was the Maryland Hillel’s Freshman Leadership Summit. 

As a freshman living on campus during these unprecedented times, it can be hard to feel a part of the Terrapin community. Because of this, I was determined to sign up for as many events and clubs that sparked my interest. Many of these events were through Hillel, such as the Freshman Leadership Summit, Shabbam, and Chaloween. These programs have not only allowed me to meet some of my closest friends but also encouraged me to further my Jewish leadership,” said Molly Silverman, from the University of Maryland, College Park. 

What Will the Future Bring? 

As the spring semester gets underway, much will remain the same. Yet Snyder at Goucher Hillel believes that what transpired during COVID-19 will provide lessons for the future. 

“Hillels will continue to fulfill the same core mission: to inspire Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel,” says Synder. “As we emerge from this period, our staff and students now deeply understand that flexibility, creativity, and responsiveness are essential ingredients for inspiration.” 

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