When Adam Lehman began his post as president and CEO of Hillel International in January 2020, he outlined an agenda that centered on raising Hillel’s level of engagement with students on campus.
Two months later, COVID-19 appeared in the United States, forcing an end to travel and dramatically changing the social and religious life among students across the country and the world.
We were blinded like everyone else, Lehman, a former Shaker Heights resident, told CJN Jan. 28. I feel good about how the whole movement has come together to make sure they were there for the students. This has been the theme of the year and it has worked well.
Many students were forced to attend classes from their dorm rooms or their homes, and Hillel leaders across the country, like other organizations accustomed to holding personal events, moved programming to online platforms.
In April, Hillel International announced staff reductions at its Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC. Fifteen staff were laid off, eight underwent part-time work, and four were completely devalued in North America.
Hillel International participated in the current economy by borrowing more than $ 10 million from the Small Business Administration to keep staff in the camps and working with foundation partners to redirect funds to the Hillels camp, Lehman said.
On campus or from home after a full day of virtual classes, many students were not interested in large-scale Magnification experiences, Ohio Hillel leaders told CJN. Attendance at services and other large-scale events began to fluctuate.
Fatigue from magnification is absolutely a challenge, said Jared Isaacson, CEO of Cleveland Hillel in Cleveland, adding for students, their first and foremost priority is academia.
Hillel leaders rethought how to approach an environment that forced students to be literally remote.
We have reimagined what Hillel is, Lehman said. We walked away from the big group events.
Hillel focused on two programming formats that seemed to work best in the strange new world of quarantine: small group events and one-on-one interactions. In those one-on-one conversations, Hillel’s leaders and staff monitor the well-being of the students, while encouraging them to take initiatives around Jewish leadership and teaching.
Despite the challenges, Lehman said Hillel connected with 142,000 students during the 2019-20 academic year more than ever before.
At Cleveland Hillel, Isaacson said staff are starting small group events, group building, almost like creating microcommunities around a specific idea or topic, focusing on Jewish education, leadership development or social action.
At Ohio State University in Columbus, hybrid events have taken shape, said Rabbi Ilan Schwartz, who is the rabbi and assistant director.
One such event involved making the mezuzahut, in which students were released from the Hillel camp to get kits and paints, then went to their rooms and engaged in creating religious icons together from their separate spaces.
Another successful event at camps across the country is the Shabbat dinner experience, reimagined as a meal to get a Zoom service to follow.
Every Friday, students who sign up at Hillel to get their own meals, then head to the services at Zoom if they wish.
Their connection wants and their interaction wants, Schwartz said of the OSU experience. And we were doing our best to provide it for them in a safe and healthy way. We were serving a lot of food, especially on Shabbat. The students really wish that, as a kind of beautiful Shabbat meal with home-cooked feeling, and were doing their best to provide for all their other Jewish needs, whatever they were.
Schwartz said students choose the time of receipt for their meals.
We educate as well as we can, said Schwartz. We try to keep social distance and face-to-face interaction to a minimum.
Every week, the chef makes a dinner based on various Sephardic, Ashkenazi and even Chinese themes, which is a favorite for students, Schwartz said.
And despite the pandemic, the Hillel Internationals virtual college fair attracted more than 2,000 high school students with 188 Hillels on campus.
For High Holy Days, Hillel International broke away from the small group paradigm and provided great virtual services. In total, Hillel International offered 25 hours of programming, accumulating more than 50,000 viewing experiences.
Moreover, he has offered a virtual series Hillel @ Home, with speakers undermined by rock world stars, including Nathan Sharansky and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died on November 7, 2020. The programming in that country had more than 100,000 views .
At Kent State University in Kent, Executive Director Adam Hirsh said the hybrid approach has taken place.
This allows us to offer different ways for students to participate, Hirsh said. Everyone’s situations are so different now.
For Chanukah, Kent State reached 185 students through a three-phase approach offered: an Instagram lottery, online candle lighting events organized by various Jewish organizations each night, and the distribution of Chanukah final kits including Chanukiah, candles and dreidels.
Weve made Shabbat in a box for years, Hirsh said. When we were not expecting a Shabbat, we would always try to bring the Shabbat experience into the hands of students and organize their meal, Hirsh said, adding that preparation now focuses on individual meals as students quarantine.
Hirsh called Lehman a soothing presence for all of us, adding, He has been the steady hand we needed throughout this pandemic.
Schwartz said Lehman is an excellent listener and listens to Hillel campus executives.
During a time of political and racial unrest, Lehman said he has been able to reclaim his growth experience at Shaker Heights. He was on bus to Moreland Elementary School as one of three white students in the elementary school class, he said.
In the years that I followed Moreland and had the incredible privilege and benefit of being part of a school system in general that was so diverse, Lehman said. So for me this has shaped my point of view throughout my life and greatly underlined the way I not only look at community building within the Jewish community, but also look at our responsibility.
In Hillel, this past election cycle, he said staff also encouraged students to engage politically during the presidential election in several ways. The Hillel Internationals MitzVote initiative activated more than 12,000 students in civic engagement and launched hundreds of survey volunteers.
Regardless of the Suburban Temple or Park Synagogue or through my family relationships, I have personally proven that the Jewish community is not amorphous, Lehman said. It is not a conceptual framework. It is about individual relationships and how we support each other on a human level.
Publishers note: Adam Hirsh is the son of Larry Hirsh, a member of the Cleveland Public Enterprise Board of Directors.