In years gone by, during days spent in the Hillel lounge that is now merely a thing of legend, many a student could be heard professing that Hillel was their “home away from home”. Flash forward to this year, and suddenly Hillel is just your home, period. 

Yet, initially, we were hard pressed to hear anyone who would admit to being really excited about the idea of their home being their “Hillel away from Hillel”. As far as I know, that is not a phrase yet. 

And it probably never will be, because the consensus seems to be that we have had enough of living in the virtual world (tell that to our parents!) and want the real world to come back really fast. 

Buuuut that looks like it’s going to take a little longer than we initially anticipated BUT have no fear – or at least have a little less – because, despite the drawbacks, Hillel is proving to be adapting remarkably well to the “new normal” (editor’s note: this is the first time in history anyone has used the word “normal” in the same sentence as “Hillel”). 

As soon as the “online” verdict came in from the university, the whispers started. Concerned teachers, club directors, student leaders in the “halls” (not actually, but you get me – stay home kids.) Everyone wondering how to engage students throughout the year while the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” lurked behind every screen. Some even said it couldn’t be done (I may have been that person).

And yet, here we are half a semester later, a very diverse line-up of September events under our belt, and so far…the Zoom fatigue spectre has let us be. 

After the kick-off event “Speed Friending” (like Speed Dating but without the awkwardness), first-year student Eitan said, “I honestly don’t think having the event over zoom made a noticeable difference at all. Through the alternating usage of breakout rooms and big conversations in the general meeting, it really felt like any normal Hillel event, and people were just as ready to share and make connections” (editor’s note: this statement was not coerced in any way). 

When asked what impression of Hillel/Jewish life at York the event left him with, he said, “Tight-knit, out-of-the-box, and wholesome”.

And it gets better: Eitan is a Glendon student (Glendon, n. “The smaller, oft ignored, but much prettier York campus where students are rumored to speak French. To be confirmed”). What does this mean? It means that, in more “normal” years, Hillel would not have been as accessible to him. It would have meant at least a 40-minute shuttle ride, both ways, IF he could find time to fit in trips between classes. Because of this whole balagan (Heb: mess), he actually gains a level of connection and inclusion that otherwise might not have been possible. 

This is also true for students who, before, were anxious to visit the lounge – but not to log into a Zoom event. Now, from what I’ve heard,  the lounge will hopefully have gained some new faces when things start up again that wouldn’t have shown up without the Zoom year. 

And just think how cool it is that, suddenly, people are all together in one Zoom call. While it was great to meet your friends at the lounge, how often did you step out of your circles and interact with everyone who was there? Now, we’re seeing 4th year students who have been around Hillel for years, speak for the first time (albeit, after an initial awkward, “So you’re a first year?” “What do you mean? I’ve been here forever…”).

Now, I’m not trying to convince you that Zoom is the way to go forever – but, for now, not only are we so far killing it, we’re actually benefiting from it. There are innumerable great opportunities coming out of our current challenge, and it’s making us stronger and bringing us together in a different way than before – one that, from what I’m seeing, is going to have a lasting and empowering impact.

If you haven’t made it out to a Hillel event yet, I definitely encourage your try to come say hi if you can. I hope you’ll be as surprised as the rest of us have been at the natural feel they have. There’s a huge range of events to choose from, from just hang out sessions, to learning, to movies, to trivia (as a bonus, you get to play Kahoot from your room, without the threat of a physical war breaking out! A truly historic time we’re living in). 

If you’ve been coming, keep coming because the success we’ve known up until now isn’t possible without everyone –

This is a year that, in everyone’s mind, is connected with solitude. But more and more we’re realizing that it demands unity to make it work. A different kind, a kind that can be more challenging, and sometimes exhausting, but still unity, nonetheless. 

If we remember the first thing Eitan said about his impression of Hillel York, it was “tight-knit”. Right away, before anything, he saw the way we come together. And he’s right. If there’s one idea that could define the Jewish student body at York, it’s this.

The Hebrew word for together is “Yachad”. The Hebrew word for Jew is “Yehudi”. While their roots aren’t 100% identical, they’re undeniably similar, and I’m standing my ground on this one because I’ve definitely heard more far-flung Rabbinic arguments.  

After having to rethink our whole existence, simplify our lives, and bring it back to the essential, we’ve had a unique chance to really find out what defines us. 

The jury is in, and what defines us is “tight-knit”. This is our inherent strength – even in the era of social distancing and Zoom. 

Written by: Elisheva Tzafon

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