Every university student has probably asked themselves the very question Natalie and Naomi found themselves asking when the pandemic started: “What can I do with my time, and how can I make it meaningful?”
Both students looked forward to their original, exciting summer plans. After attending Camp Ramah off and on for 10 years, Natalie was finally looking forward to stepping into a head staff position, while Naomi’s love for Israel was going to bring her back to begin a 12-week internship at the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Sadly, neither of their summers would turn out to be the one they had anticipated.
The news about COVID-19 unfolded quickly in March. “That night, I was writing an exam, walked out, and got an email that class isn’t going to be in person anymore” Naomi remembered, recalling her last night on campus.
“The progression [of coronavirus] and the quick reaction of closures from universities was surreal,” Natalie added. Even in the moment, both understood and agreed with these decisions, concluding that “it had to be done.”
Instinctually, as best friends do, Naomi called Natalie that night to figure out what they’d do next. Having previously volunteered in the community through volunteering at telethons and fundraisers, they quickly went looking for ways they could serve others during the pandemic. With Passover quickly approaching, they joined UJA’s The Global Seder, and dedicated a day to packing kosher food needed to make a Passover seder possible for families in need around the GTA.
To their surprise, they found more of their friends from Western Hillel volunteering, along with many new faces. Natalie took special notice of how everyone was “genuinely happy to be outside and helping.” The feeling was so upbeat and positive that a fellow volunteer led a physically distanced yoga session for everyone in between shifts. It’s meaningful interactions like these that have helped some students get through this a gloomy time.
Both Natalie and Naomi have found Jewish community and support through Hillel, even off-campus. Even though many of Hillel’s regular programming had to be adapted or canceled, “Hillel has been very good and has still found a way to help us” by bringing similar volunteering opportunities and staying focused on making meaningful community interactions online. “I’ve been making challah at home every Friday only because Leora posts and sends me the recipe,” added Natalie.
At Hillel, students are the inspiration and motivation for innovative programming, as this experience has illuminated. Although this summer couldn’t be filled with summer camp, shopping with friends, carnival games at the Ex, and traveling abroad, university students are continuously looking for meaningful experiences and interactions. While students continue to fill their spare time with reading, cooking, and for some, planning summer camp activities for their younger siblings, Hillel is hard at work planning programming for a year full of new ways to engage, build community and empower students to become strong Jewish leaders. “Even though I won’t be [at Western], I’ve gotten updates about next year and it makes me excited,” Natalie commented.
Looking to the fall, Natalie will be heading to Queen’s for medical school, and Naomi is preparing for her next year at Western. For now, they continue to build on their volunteerism and enjoy dedicating their time to helping those in need.