UC Berkeley Chabad co-directors Bracha Leeds (left) and Rabbi Gil Leeds (right) hand out Shabbat supplies to students. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley Chabad)
UC Berkeley Chabad co-directors Bracha Leeds (left) and Rabbi Gil Leeds (right) hand out Shabbat supplies to students. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley Chabad)

How Jewish college orgs are keeping students connected during a pandemic

When Covid-19 forced UC Berkeley to cancel in-person classes this semester, Rabbi Gil Leeds knew it meant that he, too, would not be able to hold in-person events at his Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center near campus. No Shabbats, no Jewish learning, no Taco Tuesdays.

So the rabbi and his wife, Bracha, devised a work-around: If students couldn’t come to Chabad, then Chabad would come to them.

“Every day was a fluid situation,” the rabbi said of the challenges of serving students in a time of coronavirus. “We were dealing with a new set of variables. We wanted to do something inclusive and at the same time make it not feel like a consolation prize.”

For the Chabads, Hillels and other Jewish organizations serving Bay Area college campuses, the summer months allowed time to strategize ways to help locked-down students stay in touch, keep Jewish life alive and cope with the emotional toll of living in an upended world.

Since nothing says love like free food, the Leeds prepare scores of Shabbat meals and home-baked challahs every Friday. They also hand out (or deliver, if one prefers) “Shabbat Essentials Kits,” which include a Kiddush cup and candles in the Cal colors of blue and gold.

Masked, socially distancing students line up at the Leeds’ home (which doubles as the Chabad center) and take their food and/or kits back to their residences to welcome Shabbat.

“We don’t charge for any of this,” the rabbi said. “We want to make sure we invest in students, and it’s even more important now. We’re telling them Judaism is not something that needs to be practiced at Chabad. One thing the pandemic taught us is to refocus on the individual.”

Sarita Bronstein
Sarita Bronstein

Sarita Bronstein, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, learned a similar lesson when the pandemic largely closed down the campuses she serves: San Jose State University, Santa Clara University and three community colleges.

“It’s hard to engage students in virtual programming,” she said, “especially when they are already going to class virtually. So you have to be very creative. It’s important to have them lead the programs, because they bring their friends.”

In addition to Zoom Shabbats this semester, which began in late August, Bronstein said there have been student-led game nights, a book club, an Israel club, Jewish leadership offerings, a guide to the 2020 election and a Yiddish class. Moreover, there have been hundreds of “one-on-one engagement activities,” such as virtual coffee dates.

At San Francisco State University, student Carla Naylor has sought new ways to navigate her academic and Jewish lives. The Larkspur resident said involvement with San Francisco Hillel has helped, describing it as “vital if not life-saving” for some people.

“I honestly thought we’d go back to school by [last] April or May,” Naylor said. “I was not expecting [the lockdown] to go on as long as it had. It sent me into a semi-existential crisis. Do I have to change my career path?”

The 23-year-old former Brandeis Marin student keeps up with her coursework online and participates in Hillel activities via Zoom as often as she can.

“I attended 95 percent of the online events [Hillel] had,” she said. “It is pretty much one of the things keeping me social now, especially with the [fallout from the] fires.”

Rachel Nilson Ralston
Rachel Nilson Ralston

Rachel Nilson Ralston, executive director of S.F. Hillel, which serves students at seven campuses in the city, has gleaned a singular lesson over the last six months: Even though “the methods, strategies and priorities have shifted,” she said, everything has changed and everything is the same, “in the sense that, at our core, we’re a community of support and learning. We’re still doing that.”

Ralston’s priorities this year are what she calls “cultivating connection, making meaning and pursuing justice.” In terms of programming, that means everything from virtual coffee dates with staff to Jewish learning opportunities, Zoom Shabbats, Israel education and social-action projects.

Sensing “Zoom fatigue,” Ralston also has opted to go low-tech, handing out boxes of apples (with honey) for Rosh Hashanah, writing out “how’s it going?” postcards and mailing them to students, and even calling students on the phone to see how they’re doing.

During times like these, it’s Hillel and my Jewish community I’m leaning on. It’s getting me through all this.

Checking in is more important than ever, these Jewish leaders say. For some students, the stress of having their lives interrupted has been intense.

“It’s definitely not easy,” said Jane Bakhter, a student at UC Davis, “but I’m trying to stay positive. The hardest thing now is I’m not going back in the fall to see friends and housemates. During times like these, it’s Hillel and my Jewish community I’m leaning on. It’s getting me through all this.”

Once the pandemic hit, Rachel Darling, the executive director of Hillel at Davis and Sacramento, knew she and her staff had to help students like Bakhter navigate the crisis. She started by asking them what they needed.

“We sent out a survey to ask students what kind of virtual events they’d be interested in,” she said. “The main things they requested were cooking classes, workout classes, arts and crafts, and continuing to celebrate Shabbat. We made sure to do that.”

To help students struggling with anxiety or depression, Hillel is ready.

Darling, for example, has partnered with Kognito, a health strategies company that trains organizations like Hillel to assist emotionally struggling students.

“They took us through different scenarios,” she recalled. “We learned the warning signs when a student has a mental health issue. UC Davis created a liaison for Hillel, a counselor [who is] a point person for students facing a mental health crisis. UC Davis is on top of it with their counseling and student health center.”

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg, executive director of Chabad at Stanford, agrees that the pandemic has placed severe stress on some students. He says student mental health is “a very serious issue,” adding, “I’m not sure people realize how hard it is for students, especially coming to a new place, to be locked away, to be away from home.”

For those students, he has ready advice, grounded in Jewish tradition.

“I tell them the best cure for the feeling of loneliness and sadness is get up and help somebody else,” he said. “Don’t wait for someone to call you; be the person to call. Think ‘My friend is lonely,’ and as you lift your friend you lift yourself. It’s like an energy drink for the soul.”

As for his Chabad center, he said he’s ready for the fall quarter, which began Sept. 14 with mainly remote learning.

“Students seem to be very enthusiastic about being engaged, to meet other Jewish students from different walks of life,” he said. “We need to be very creative but still inspiring, and allow students to meet and grow together in a safe way.”

To facilitate that, Greenberg has programmed the same sorts of online Jewish learning classes, lectures and schmoozing events available to Jewish college students at other schools. But beyond Zoom, he said he has a safe way to bring people together — in person.

He put up a large tent in his backyard where he can hold events while taking health precautions. In addition, he recently scheduled a socially distanced, outdoor Shabbat event at a nearby park, although it had to be canceled due to wildfire smoke.

But he will try again. Next up: a Covid-safe sukkah in the backyard. His motto: “Six feet apart but close at heart.”

Rabbi Leeds in Berkeley sees an upside to the pandemic chaos. As he put it, “Students are taking ownership of their Jewish observance because they have to actively go out of their way to do Shabbat. They give it more forethought. Covid has not slowed down Jewish life.”

Greenberg agrees.

“At the heart of our tradition is this majestic idea that a human being is a partner with God in making this world a gracious and godly place,” he said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and take responsibility for society. At the end of the day, to be a Jew is to be optimistic. In the end we are going to make the world as it ought to be.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.