The organization is exploring other ways to aid students during COVID-19.
Hillel at the University of Michigan decided to cancel its Shabbat meal program for the rest of the semester, the organization announced to students in an email Tuesday.
The decision came just a few days after Michigan State University Hillel made the similar decision to stop its Shabbat-to-Go program.
Both moves followed an executive order made by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday that halted all non-essential business in the state for three weeks in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Both Hillel houses had expanded their Shabbat take-out catering in the early weeks of March after determining it was not safe to host Shabbat dinners in person. Both have also canceled Passover catering options.
According to Executive Director Tilly Shames, University of Michigan’s Hillel served 400 students to-go shabbat meals on March 13, and 300 on March 20. The University of Michigan shifted to online classes starting March 16.
“Originally, when we realized we could not gather in person, it was important for us to continue to meet the needs of students for as long as we possibly could,” Shames told the Jewish News.
Shames said the take-out system was a big success. Hillel staff came in to package individual meals, keep track of orders and put meal packages outside so students could pick them up with as little contact as possible. But as the coronavirus situation worsened in Michigan, the staff decided to reevaluate.
“At this point, with the governor’s executive order, and to uphold the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students, we did not feel it was responsible to keep the program going,” Shames said. “It was a very difficult decision for us and one we did not take lightly.”
While Shames said students have been understanding of the changes, she acknowledged that many were sad about the disruption of beloved Hillel programs.
Yoav Jacob, a University of Michigan senior from New York, was heavily involved in Hillel for all four years on campus. He’s remaining in Ann Arbor for now, and Hillel was something he didn’t initially think coronavirus would take away from him.
“It’s manifesting in different ways in my life that I didn’t necessarily expect. My work [as an EMT] is a lot more complicated, graduation — that’s sad. And now Hillel is another thing that was a big part of my college experience,” he said. “Having that relatively abrupt end is not something I wanted to happen.”
Still, he understood the importance of Hillel’s decision, and felt canceling Shabbat catering was the right thing.
“Just because it’s appropriate doesn’t mean I’m not upset about it, but they did the right thing at the right time,” Jacob said.
Similar discussions happened at Michigan State University’s Hillel. Robyn Hughey, MSU Hillel’s associate director, said they fulfilled about 40 take-out orders for Shabbat dinner on March 20.
Hughey said students who participated appreciated the option. But like their colleagues at U-M, MSU Hillel decided they couldn’t continue the program and adequately protect their staff and students.
Hillel of Metro Detroit, which provides Jewish programming to six universities in the Detroit area, also did a Shabbat meal drop-off for students last week, according to Assistant Director Sam Appel.
“[The chef] was able to separately package everything and we felt comfortable to deliver at an appropriate distance this food to students — we were very happy to provide that this week,” Appel said. “But we’re not going to be doing Shabbats every week.”
College Judaism, Online
The upheaval of meal programs at Hillel houses around Michigan is just one way the organizations have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With students leaving campus and gatherings of any size being off the table due to the virus, classes, activities and discussion groups now take place over Zoom calls or social media.
Of course, the transition has come with a learning curve. U-M Hillel scaled back its programming after hearing from students that they felt overwhelmed by all the offerings from
Hillel, summer camps, youth groups and synagogues. They decided not to host their own virtual seder this year, and instead will offer resources to students so they can host their own.
All three directors agreed that their main priority is one-on-one outreach to students.
“We’re trying to reach out to all of our students to check in with them to see how they’re doing — you know, not feet to the ground, but phone to the ear,” Hughey said.
In the end, Hillel is there to support students, no matter what the circumstances, Shames said.
“We deeply understand how upsetting and disorienting this experience is,” she told JN. “We want to continue to be a supportive resource for them.”