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Welcoming New Year at Hillel During COVID-19

By Elliot B. Karp, CEO, Hillels of Georgia

Atlanta Jewish Times (August 28, 2020)

My colleagues and I look forward to welcoming our Hillel student leaders back to campus for the start of the new academic year amidst precautions and protocols due to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillel is open for business, although it will not be business as usual.

We know it will be challenging to personally meet and embrace our students, as we are limiting the number of people gathering at our Hillel buildings in favor of online programming. However, given the passionate commitment of our staff and student leaders, I am confident we will continue to engage Jewish students and create dynamic Jewish life on each of our Hillels of Georgia campuses.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49 percent of universities across the country plan to hold in-person instruction, with 35 percent planning for a hybrid mix of virtual and in-person classes. Each campus within the Hillels of Georgia constellation is making these same determinations, and we will be adaptive and flexible in working with each college or university.

We are speaking with our students and taking polls to learn what they are planning to do when they come back to campus and how we can support and assist them.

We are using this information to help inform our plans for Hillel programming while coming up with creative and innovative ways to continue and expand our offerings. At the same time, we have invested in masks, gloves, sanitizers and other personal protective equipment so that every precaution is taken to keep our students, staff and guests safe and healthy.

Since March, Hillel programming has pivoted online, featuring ongoing activities like our popular Jewish Learning Fellowship, weekly d’vrei Torah, Israel seminars, yoga sessions and holiday celebrations. We developed new initiatives like our Distinguished Summer Speaker Series featuring local Atlantans in business, medicine and community. The series was widely received and will be continued this fall. And to prepare for the upcoming semester, we hosted virtual college tours and orientation sessions for new students.

While we reluctantly postponed the Maccabee Task Force mission to Israel for non-Jewish and Jewish student leaders at Emory and Georgia State [universities], our dedicated staff developed a virtual tour and educational program for the participants to keep their interest high for when the trip is rescheduled.

Even high holidays will come with adjustments this year. We are making plans for our services to be online and inspiring, and we will provide both holiday to-go packages and Shabbat2Go meals so students can celebrate with a kosher meal in their dorm rooms or apartments. At a time when gathering is limited, we hope to offer creative ways for our students to connect with the Jewish community and their faith.

Most importantly, our Hillel staff is maintaining regular contact with as many of our students as possible through virtual coffee dates, phone calls and COVID-safe socially distanced meetings.

In a study conducted by the Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health and the American College Health Association, about 60 percent of college students said the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care. We are proud to be working in collaboration with Jewish Family & Career Services in providing our Hillel staff with in-service training on mental health awareness and issues during the pandemic, so we are equipped to assist students during these challenging times.

We are honored to serve over 5,000 students on 24 campuses (and counting) across the state of Georgia. Now, more than ever, our students need additional support and community, and we strive to continue to offer meaningful Jewish experiences for students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.

At Hillels of Georgia, our hearts, minds and arms (or elbow bumps) will always be open.

Elliot B. Karp is CEO of Hillels of Georgia

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