Hillels of Memphis Students Connected Digitally During Virtual Fall Semester

By Sophie Bloch, Director of Hillels of Memphis

Over these last few months, I have often thought back to my own college experience and what it would have felt like to be starting a new school year during a pandemic. I studied dance and theater, so time and time again I came back to the age-old adage that “the show must go on.” And go on, it did! In spite of physical distancing and students scattered around the country, we were still able to honor the essence of what makes Hillel.

After an incredible pilot Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) series in the spring, twenty students participated in JLF this semester. Because JLF was virtual this semester, we were able to combine students from Rhodes College and University of Memphis into one cohort to learn together. The pandemic has put many other quintessential college activities on pause, which has left more availability for more people to participate in Jewish learning; many of the students taking advantage of virtual JLF this semester otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate due to their class schedule, athletics, or work obligations.

We also launched a virtual learning series with Jewish faculty from Memphis universities to spotlight the incredible Jewish intellectual talent we have here in Memphis for the entire Memphis Jewish community to enjoy. Named “On One Foot” in honor of the parable about Hillel the Elder teaching a student the “entire Torah while standing on one foot: treat others how you’d like to be treated,” each program in the series features a Jewish academic speaking on their area of expertise. Each lecture was recorded and archived on the Hillel website so future learners can enjoy the lectures as well.

(Above) Professor Victor Coonin, Professor of Art and Art History at Rhodes College, spoke about “Michelangelo, Moses, and Black Lives Matter” to discover what Michelangelo’s depictions of Moses can teach us about contextualizing problematic statues from the Civil War era.

Crisis calls for Jews to step up, which is something eight Hillel student interns learned this semester during a new Fundraising and Development Internship in partnership with Memphis Jewish Federation. Students learned about the Jewish values of philanthropy as well as valuable communication skills for fundraising that will translate to any future career, all while having the opportunity to get paid for remote work. The students in this leadership role set the tone for meaningful involvement in Hillel and Jewish communal life for their peers, all while Memphis Jewish Federation got support from students in securing pledges for its Annual Community Campaign.

Even though classes were virtual this semester, many students were living in Memphis either with their families or in their off-campus apartments. Because of this, we hosted small outdoor socially distant Shabbat dinner celebrations at the Morris S. Fogelman Jewish Student Center at University of Memphis. In-town students from both campuses came together to safely celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, providing a much-needed opportunity for connection and spirituality.

The semester wouldn’t have been complete without Hillel swag- and the best part about Hillel swag is that it travels! Without the usual milestones to mark time, we benchmarked the semester with care packages that were either mailed or hand-delivered to students in honor of the start of the semester, Rosh Hashanah, and finals week. As a result of receiving care packages throughout the semester, students felt included in the Hillels of Memphis community no matter where they were spending their semester.

Whether it was through remote learning opportunities, leadership development, outdoor Shabbat and holiday celebrations, or receiving goodies in the mail, Hillel students brought their best selves forward. We have so much to learn from the compassion, dedication, and resilience of our young adult community, and now more than ever I am confident that the future of the Jewish people will thrive in their hands.

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