Bear Claw at Hillel: Students enjoy a hot drink on a cold day with the Bear Claw Coffee Truck at Michigan Hillel.
Bear Claw at Hillel: Students enjoy a hot drink on a cold day with the Bear Claw Coffee Truck at Michigan Hillel. (U-M Hillel)

The executive director of University of Michigan Hillel discusses what they will be doing this year and what adaptations from last year will be kept going forward. 

This past year, I took the time to “Marie Kondo” various parts of our home — drawers, closets, our entire basement. Utilizing Kondo’s renowned practice, we put it all on the floor and decided what we truly needed, what brought us joy, what could bring more joy to someone else and what was ready to be tossed for good. For those of you who have done this before, you know how challenging it can be to have to let go or to reimagine how to make all the pieces fit. 

So, too, did our Hillel have to let go of so many things and reimagine how to make our offerings fit into more limited spaces and restrictions due to COVID. Like many other Hillels, all our programming and services had to be laid out and decisions had to be made about what was essential, what could we make fit, what could we adapt and what would we simply need to let go of. 

Tilly Shemer
Tilly Shemer

This exercise invited tremendous creativity around how we ran our programs, often leading to surprising results. For example, we adjusted to limited gathering sizes by running the same program, multiple times, to welcome as many people as we could. What we discovered was by capping the numbers and replicating the program, we actually created a more intimate environment that was more conducive to fostering relationships and encouraging group conversation.  

We also got creative about space. Rather than hosting one large Shabbat meal in our Hillel space, we supported dozens of meals every week in students’ homes to make the experience more accessible and safer. As a result, Shabbat and holiday meal participation increased last year rather than decreased because students could bring this Jewish practice into their homes, among friends, and fit Shabbat more seamlessly into their lives. 

Last year’s restrictions made indoor High Holiday services impossible for our Hillel. As a result, we got creative, even bold, and brought shofar blowing out to public locations around campus. Bringing this Jewish ritual into the public was a moment of pride for so many students, and a safe, accessible way to experience the holidays. 

As we look to this year, we are not rushing to put everything from our pre-pandemic time back in place. Rather, we find ourselves approaching Fall 2021 with the same creativity, laying it all out — programming during the pandemic and pre-pandemic — and deciding which model really works that will drive us forward, or could we possibly experiment further with a new hybrid approach. 

Freshmen Retreat: Michigan Hillel’s Freshmen Retreat included small, rotating groups of freshmen tie-dyeing their new Hillel T-shirts outside of Hillel.
Freshmen Retreat: Michigan Hillel’s Freshmen Retreat included small, rotating groups of freshmen tie-dyeing their new Hillel T-shirts outside of Hillel. U-M Hillel

So while we are so excited to return to offering in-person Shabbat dinners in tents outside of Hillel, we will continue to support meals in students’ homes and smaller gatherings around campus, catered by Hillel or cooked by our students themselves. This is a particularly perfect fit for our upperclassmen students who are in their own homes and benefit long term from gaining experience and confidence hosting Shabbat for their peers. 

While this year we will return to multiple, in-person services (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), we will keep the outdoor shofar blowing around campus to make the High Holidays more accessible and flexible to fit into our students’ busy class schedules. 

The other adaptations from last year that we plan to keep moving forward are:

  • Utilizing Zoom to increase access to speakers directly from Israel and around the country rather than waiting for speaker tours to bring experts to Ann Arbor,
  • Our new online platform powered by OneTable that empowers students to host their own programs, design content for themselves and invite their peers
  • Cooking classes online so that students can join with their roommates and use their own kitchens,
  • And inviting local food trucks to our Hillel parking lot to bring Ann Arbor directly to our students.

As an organization that positions itself as the primary Jewish community builder on campus, this past year’s limitations were challenging. However, the disruption of COVID encouraged us to lean even further into innovation and experimentation, allowing us to reimagine how our Hillel builds community. We know that we’ll be keeping not only these new approaches but also the spirit of innovation that helped us remain successful all year. 

Tilly Shemer is the executive director of University of Michigan Hillel.

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