University of Michigan Hillel
University of Michigan Hillel (Wikimedia Commons)

College Hillels across Michigan plan online and outdoor activities.

Hillels at Michigan universities are usually buzzing with activity around the High Holidays as they work to prepare Jewish learning, programming and worship opportunities for students across their schools. But this year, COVID-19 has required Hillel staff to reimagine the High Holidays on campus.

“We’ve never seen anything like this — everything’s different,” said Sam Appel, assistant director of Hillel of Metro Detroit, which serves Wayne State University and five other schools in the Detroit area. “Summers are pretty slow for Hillel, but it’s been wild, rebuilding everything from scratch. Nothing’s the same anymore, and the sooner we realize that and lean into it, we can make some really cool opportunities.”

Hillels have already been through a virtual holiday season when the start of the pandemic interrupted Passover plans on college campuses. Digital engagement became key during the spring, and they’ll continue this model into the fall, with activities and programs that have usually been held in person with big groups now happening online or outdoors in small groups. At Hillel of Metro Detroit, this might look like a virtual tashlich meditation event or a traveling pop-up sukkah.

“The idea we’re talking about now is we’ll drop off a sukkah and a bunch of signs that celebrate Sukkot at someone’s house, and then they’ll tell us whose house it goes to next,” Appel said. “They’ll have an opportunity to eat a snack in the sukkah and to do the prayer, and we’ll help them and teach them that process if they’d like to know.”

Hillel at the University of Michigan plans to make use of the warm weather at the start of the school year. Their high holiday programing will include meditative walks in the university’s arboretum, community service activities and “reverse tashlich” where students help clean up the Huron River.

“We’re also hearing that our students are craving connection, but nervous about group size and restrictions, so when we tell them that we’re offering programming that is highly controlled by RSVP to maintain safety or will be done virtually online, they seem both relieved and excited to participate,” said Director Tilly Shemer.

At Michigan State University, tashlich is the one activity that will be held in person, with social distancing in effect. But “I’m also going to do an online version of that, because there’s so many people who are off campus who might not be near a body of water or just want that programming online,” said Rabbi Jenna Turow, the new rabbi at MSU Hillel.

Online Prayer

Virtual programing will extend to High Holiday services, too. This fall, MSU and University of Michigan Hillels will broadcast their services online. University of Michigan’s Hillel will also focus on empowering students to host their own small gatherings to observe the holidays, and they’re waiting until school is in session to determine whether their services will have any in-person component, said Shemer.

“That might look like students being trained to lead part of the service in their own home with a small group,” Shemer told the Jewish News.

At MSU, Turow thinks the switch to virtual might allow more students to participate in Hillel’s high holidays programming. MSU Hillel runs Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan, which provides Jewish programming to universities outside of Southeast Michigan.

“That’s actually kind of the cool thing about it being online is that students at other campuses can all come to services because it’s available to them,” Turow said. “Otherwise, it’s just me — I’m the only one — so I would not have gotten to do services for all the schools.”

Turow, who just began at MSU Hillel this summer, said she’s curious to see if participation in Hillel services increases among MSU students, too. Many Jewish students who stay in Michigan for college decide to go home for the High Holidays in normal years, but the ongoing pandemic makes going home for anything more complicated these days.

“From what I’ve heard, for the most part, students at MSU would generally go home for holidays, and it’s not that big of a group” at Hillel, she said. “I’m curious to see if there are going to be more people attending because it’s available online.”

Allison Bloomberg

Allison Bloomberg, a senior at the University of Michigan and member of the Hillel International Student Cabinet, is going to stay in Ann Arbor for the High Holidays this year. She might go home to West Bloomfield for the afternoon to pick up some of the food her mom is cooking for the holidays, she said, but she won’t stay the night.

“This year, I’m not going home, but it’s only because of COVID. I don’t want to expose my family to whatever I’ve may or may not have,” Bloomberg said. “And also, because the services are going to be on Zoom anyway, I don’t really see a point in going home.”

Bloomberg, whose family belongs to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, plans to watch the service with a roommate who also grew up going there. She and her roommates will hold a break-fast dinner for Yom Kippur — though it’ll most likely just be for the six of them, she said.

One big plus about everything being online this year is that schedules are more flexible now, Bloomberg said. In years past, she’s decided to stay in Ann Arbor for the holidays anyway because she didn’t want to miss important lectures.

As Bloomberg put it, “there’s not going to be as big of a conflict with classes now that everything’s online!”

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