None of us saw this coming. We lived our last week at WashU before spring break in a normal way, not knowing that all of it — the communal Shabbat dinners with hundreds of students, the Jewish hangout booths (affectionately known as “Jewths”) in the main library’s cafe, the Havdalahs and services and weekday events — would be upended.
And it hasn’t been easy.
“On some level, I feel like our community is in exile,” said WashU Chabad Rabbi Hershey Novack. “Instead of having one Chabad House, we now have hundreds of small houses with a little spirit of the Chabad house in them because our students are there.”
Sophomore Sophie Libow is one of these students. “It’s really hard to go back home, and Jewish communal life has been cancelled,” she said. “How do we move on from that?”
Community members like Libow have pitched in to brainstorm and implement ways to keep traditions alive and connections strong.
Libow creates diasporic editions of the weekly newsletter “The Shtick,” which she describes as “half for serious and half for jokes.” She started “The Shtick” in fall 2019 as a way to connect the observant community on campus — a mission especially resonant now. “You read it and you’re reminded of the jokes that the community has or of the people in the community,” she said.
“The Shtick” still features the student d’vrei Torah and memes that make it a weekly hit along with some coronavirus-era additions like “Ask a Pre-Med: What is Your Take on the Coronavirus Pandemic?” and a “Guess Who?” feature listing students’ social distancing activities.
Both Chabad and Hillel continue to program, too. Chabad offered Passover provisions as well as “Shabbat Take Out,” and Rebbetzin Chana Novack livestreams her challah making every Friday so students can join in.
Chabad has also engaged students in coronavirus-related tikkun olam. It asked students in the St. Louis area to help bottle hand sanitizer for those in need, and hosted an event with students Daniel Peters and Alli Hollender, who shared their volunteer experiences in their home communities with the hope of inspiring others to do the same.
WashU Hillel connects with students through social media posts and online events. Assistant Director Tony Westbrook hosted a shakshuka- making session, and Rabbi Jordan Gerson hosts Jewish Learning Fellowship classes and daily “office hours” on Zoom.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention and we are in need right now,” Gerson said. “The yearning for Jewish content and education and experience doesn’t end because of distance learning and social distancing. If anything, it’s even stronger.”
In addition to staff, students have taken the initiative to create their own programs through First Year Students of Hillel and the Hillel Leadership Council. They have organized chevruta (study partner) Jewish learning; an event with Dr. Rabbi Pamela Barmash, associate professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew at the university, discussing halacha and the coronavirus; a discussion about feminism in the Purim and Passover stories; and Reform and Conservative/egalitarian services, among others.
Sophomore Scott Massey brought the Reform services he led at WashU Hillel online, hosting Facebook Live Friday night services that give listeners “a little dose of Jewish music and Jewish prayer.”
“I knew that having some Jewish music and having a space for prayer was so much more important now than ever before, and I knew that I was able to deliver such an experience,” Massey said.
Massey knows he cannot recreate the WashU Hillel service experience online — and he’s not trying to. Instead of leading song for 10-15 Hillel-goers, Massey reaches hundreds of listeners (with over 1,000 for his service through Hillel International’s “Hillel at Home”) including frat brothers, his grandparents and strangers. Knowing that many tune in to seek comfort and community during this pandemic, Massey sets intentions for prayers and works in words of Torah that connect to the current situation.
He thinks that our communities will be different when we come back together — in a good way. “Every community is going to be a lot more grateful to have each other and a lot more intent on how they spend their time together,” he said.
“I think everyone will be a lot more appreciative and thankful,” Libow agreed.
But for now, WashU students and staff will continue to bond over newsletters and online services, through Netflix party and Zoom calls, doing all we can to stay connected at a time when we’re forced to be apart.
Kayla Steinberg is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis.