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San Francisco State University students gather for a meal during a fall 2019 Hillel welcome event.

Rachel Nilson Ralston

As hard as it was to get the news in May that California State University campuses will not be opening for in-person classes next fall, Rachel Nilson Ralston, who directs San Francisco Hillel, said the “bold” and “responsible” call from Cal State’s chancellor gave her organization some much-needed certainty.

Ralston, whose Hillel serves mostly San Francisco State University students, said she doesn’t envy her colleagues at other campuses, who have yet to hear a clear plan from their college leadership about the upcoming semester and in what ways it will be impeded by the coronavirus pandemic. The international Jewish student organization spans 550 colleges and universities in North America, and the pandemic has already upended long-standing traditions and eliminated the large, in-person gatherings that make Hillel unique among other college groups. But Cal State’s stance on prioritizing the safety of students and the public is something Ralston supports.

“It’s a much easier decision to shut down than it was to reopen,” Ralston said. “SF Hillel, just based on our demographics, the city we’re located in and our values, we see the process of reopening really as a test of our inclusion. Who are we prioritizing over who? We see that the community isn’t bordered by a building, and that’s what we ultimately are, in the business of providing community.”

Jen Zwilling, chief strategy officer for Hillel International, said that while the pandemic has prompted higher education leaders to rethink the ways they serve students academically, Hillel has also been “forced into some important experiments” about how it engages students beyond typical campus-based events. The purpose of Hillel is to provide a social and spiritual structure for young people entering a new phase of their life, and the organization’s leaders are finding they can successfully do this through social media conversations, interactive meditation, fitness and cooking lessons, and Hillel at Home, a variety of virtual discussions and guest speakers broadcasted nationally, which is something the organization has never done before, Zwilling said.

Hillel International found that 30 percent of the students who engaged in the at-home programming hadn’t previously been involved in their Hillel on campus and were participating for the first time, Zwilling said. Usually Hillels pause programming at the start of summer, but students are “requesting community in a world that’s gone very quiet,” Zwilling said. The abrupt stop to the academic year in March and social isolation caused by the pandemic have been challenging emotionally for students, and it is clear they seek connection and support, she said.

“There’s hope we go back, but we’re continuing to learn things,” Zwilling said. “We know there are ways higher education is going to change. Will students have to stay close to home, go to community college? … What might it look like to serve students in their communities rather than on campus?”

During June, which is LGBTQ pride month, much of the Hillel at Home programming has centered around LGBTQ and Jewish identity, as well as being black and Jewish, as national conversations about racial injustice in America continue, Zwilling said. There are very few Jewish students of color or queer Jewish students on any individual campus, but the national programming has allowed these students to connect with each other beyond the confines of a single college, she said.

Ocean Noah, a rising senior at San Francisco State and student president of SF Hillel, who is biracial, said she’s found support through a Hillel Facebook group for Jews of color. Noah said she took a break from social media, as protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police felt overwhelming. She was happy to see SF Hillel, which she said is one of the most progressive in the Hillel network, showing “serious solidarity and awareness” with the black community when she returned to social media.

“My local Hillel has been doing a really good job of acknowledging as white Jews their role in racism, either by not speaking or not acting to change it,” Noah said. “The other chapters can definitely do more work on that front … There’s a lot of arguing about racism and denying that it exists, which is very hard to see and work with.”

Daniel Marcus, executive director of Hillel’s Jewish University Center in Pittsburgh, which serves more than 2,500 college students in the city, said the organization at the local and international level has embraced the Jewish principle of “not standing silently by” and advocating for others facing injustice. Eli Sigman, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the Hillel on campus, recalled that after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, there was an “outcry” against anti-Semitism and support for the Jewish community from residents of color. He said it’s important for his organization to reciprocate that support and advocacy now.

“Our hope is to stand with the black community in Pittsburgh and Black Action Society at Pitt,” Sigman said. “We all need to be even more involved and diverse in our intercultural, interracial and interfaith organization.”

Marcus is concerned about recent protests in the city contributing to the spread of COVID-19. He's also uncertain about the various fall semester plans Pittsburgh colleges -- Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University being the largest -- have put forward. Pitt announced last week that it would allow students back to campus in the fall and pursue a hybrid model of in-person and online classes options, with all in-person instruction ending by Thanksgiving. Carnegie Mellon has a similar plan. The Hillel university center, which is independent from the universities, will follow state and local health and safety guidelines, but it will also consider the recommendations campus officials put forward, Marcus said.

He's certain some Hillel programming, such as weekly Shabbat dinners that fall on Friday evenings to commemorate the Jewish Sabbath and “welcome week” activities that mark the beginning of the semester, will have to be modified. The center typically hosts around 150 students on an average for Shabbat dinners during the academic year. Sigman said on the first Shabbat of the semester, which is the most well attended, that number is between 200 and 300 students. The Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall at the beginning of the school year, are also big gathering occasions, Marcus said.

“We’re grappling with that. We’ve been grappling with that for the last few weeks,” Marcus said. “How do we provide our fantastic Shabbat dinners to large numbers of students?”

Noah said she took Shabbat for granted, not knowing there would be a time when large groups of people would not be permitted to sit and eat together. Especially for students whose families do not observe the Sabbath or are too busy to gather, Shabbat at Hillel can be “really powerful,” she said.

Marcus said there will be Shabbat dinners in some shape or form at the Pittsburgh center. The center is planning to encourage students to have “do it yourself” Shabbat, where students can pick up food or have it delivered to their dorm room or apartment and host Shabbat with a smaller group of friends, he said.

But Sigman said it’s a shame the large community gatherings that create bonds between students won’t be possible “in the world of COVID-19,” especially for freshmen starting college in the fall. SF Hillel plans to introduce Cal State freshmen to the group online or over the phone, “instead of behind a table on the quad,” said Ralston, the executive director. Pitt is reducing its “welcome week,” when campus organizations introduce themselves to new students, to two days. Marcus said the typically interactive, face-to-face meet-and-greet event will look very different this year.

“That’s the first question we’re asking -- how do we ensure that all incoming freshmen have the knowledge, comfort and support of the [center] when we probably cannot … have 70 to 80 freshmen in our building at once eating bagels with their parents,” Marcus said. “I don’t even know if we can do that with 10.”

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