This article originally appeared in The Commentator.
Seated at a midnight black folding table with my laptop balanced on its edge, I faced my professor and 15 classmates on a Zoom Video Communications window tab, each person enclosed in their own rectangular box. Organized like a neatly compacted Tetris game, a mix of blank stares and curious expressions were plastered on my screen, substituting for the circular formation we usually assumed. Throughout the commencing hour and 15 minutes, I hastily toggled between the mute and hand-raising buttons to engage in our class discussions, ensuring my participation did not disrupt the facade of a real classroom’s decorum.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the globe, this has become the indefinite reality of my college experience.
After a student and Isaac Breuer College professor tested positive for coronavirus in early March, Yeshiva University closed Beren and Wilf campuses through Purim, later extending that closure through the beginning of our Pesach break on April 3. Since March 16, in an effort to minimize social gatherings and the risk of exposure, our academic classes have been operational through Zoom’s video conferences, coined as “distance learning.”
While adjusting to the limitations of this safety precaution, I am forced to reckon with the absence of the routine I took for granted.
I recall countless mornings packed into Zysman Hall’s Room 101 for Shacharit, the dark, evergreen-colored carpet eclipsed by rows of oakwood desks, as my fellow YU students and I stood enthralled in the early morning tefillah. Furman Dining Hall’s thrice-daily meals fostered necessary social interactions between me and my friends; those spurts of interruption became a platform for my meaningful interactions in a long day of academics. My spacious classrooms in the Belfer, Furst and Glueck buildings made for lucid learning experiences, allowing me to retain my focus on the day’s lesson.
Now, however, I must fumble through the challenges engendered by this coronavirus reality.
My mornings are silent and still, commenced by my individual tefillah in my cream-colored dining room, devoid of the camaraderie that a minyan provides. Following my adapted, video conference Beis Medrash Program (BMP) morning, I prop myself beside my kitchen table for lunch, joined by whichever of my siblings are operating on a coordinating schedule. Class is conducted over my laptop, and I find myself exerting equal amounts of energy trying to concentrate on the fuzzy video of my professor as I do trying to absorb the day’s lesson.
The struggle for reconciliation with these difficult circumstances is not limited to my individual experiences; within the greater YU community, there are some burdens we endure together.
Consider the postponement of YU’s Chag HaSemikhah, the cancellation of our YU Purim celebrations or the NCAA’s devastating announcement that the Division III tournament would not continue, abruptly ending the No. 13 Maccabees’ greatest season ever. We face these unprecedented times together, whether that’s directly via “The Official YU Meme Group” or indirectly through our mere identity in the YU community.
The distance is hard — exhausting, even. Between the loneliness, adjustment and safety precautions, we face enough internal struggles as we do external.
Nevertheless, it seems like we have drawn some sort of purpose from the coronavirus pandemic, whether that be through critical self-reflection or spreading love and generosity to those in need. Initiatives of communal convergence like a virtual kumzitz or grocery shopping for those in isolation have bettered us. The thirst for connection and the willingness to offer support have been found through YU’s administrators, rabbis, professors and students. Our batei midrash, classrooms and campuses remain closed, but our hearts have never been opened so wide before.
This, of course, is not to ignore the rising threats that coronavirus poses, but rather it is to find the light hidden within this time of darkness; as my rav from Yeshivat Orayta, Rav Nuriel Aaron, shared with me: “We cannot ask lamah (why) something happens, rather we must ask limah (for what purpose) something happens, what can I do with it.”
I hate the distance the coronavirus gave us, but I am better because of it.
Sruli Fruchter is a first-year student at Yeshiva University. He was a 2018 Write On For Israel graduate.