Members of Hillel at Northern Arizona University last year got together to make mezuzot. This year their events will start online until it's safe to be in person again. 

On a hot day in Phoenix in mid-July — 109 degrees to be exact — the idea of fall seems a distant dream. But a month is not that long — even in COVID-19 time — and Arizona’s universities have to plan now to determine what this fall will look like. At Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, Hillel is also making plans — virtual and in-person.

Rachell Krell, a junior at NAU, was recently elected president of Hillel. On the Flagstaff campus, it’s a small organization. Seven or eight students might show up at a good event in normal times. Still, Krell is upbeat and looking forward to how she and her new treasurer, sophomore Ann Lei Tumarkin, will lead Hillel from completely virtual meetings at first — like an Anti-Defamation League “Words to Action” event which was originally scheduled in April — to in-person events as soon as they’re able.

NAU hasn’t been clear so far with organizations about what is permissible, but Krell and Tumarkin are undeterred. When a green light is finally given by officialdom for in-person events, they will definitely have food available. “The free food really gets people,” Krell said.

Tumarkin, who was supposed to be interning at Yad Vashem in Israel this summer, said she’s learned to be flexible. She’s also wary about going out in public so she is going to take the school up on its offer of virtual classes, even though she will be living on campus. In regards to Hillel programming, “we’re going to try really hard to do the best we can,” she said. “For me, it is the sense of community.”

Resigned to the new reality, she is ready to do what she can to make people feel welcome but also is prepared for the scope to be limited. “I think we can still build community over Zoom — but it will be harder to get people to attend without the incentives.” Ultimately, she lamented, “it is what it is.”

Krell agreed that Hillel is about providing friendship and community, and thinks that can be done virtually. “The value we provide is still there,” she said. “We can hang out on Zoom, and we can share Shabbat — separate but together.”

She too, however, is realistic that virtual-only events will not be as attractive. “Getting people there will be hard,” she said. “When you’re elected to a position, you don’t expect something like this. I didn’t expect to be leading this. It’s difficult to fulfill the purpose of Hillel and what we can do and still be safe.”

Unlike its northern neighbor, Hillel at ASU has seven professional staff members, and 750 students attended at least one of its events last year giving it a very different experience and perspective. Its independence has also protected it. In April, when disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic gave rise to a 20% reduction in Hillel International’s workforce, ASU felt a ripple in terms of morale, but not much else since it’s separate organizationally. But they too have struggled in coming to terms with the limits caused by the pandemic.

ASU Hillel’s executive director Debbie Yunker Kail reflected that when ASU first closed down, they were on spring break and already separated from one another which made things very difficult. People didn’t get to say goodbye. She closed down their building and only let staff in briefly to collect their things.

“It was jarring initially,” Yunker Kail said, “but we pivoted very quickly, assessing what programs people were looking for — it wasn’t always what we expected.” They repurposed their programming, and their students who were home unexpectedly or alone in their apartments responded gratefully.

Yunker Kail said they reacted by sending DoorDash gift cards to students, held weekly Shabbat dinners online and joined with Sagewood, a senior living community in Phoenix, to have a multigenerational Zoom seder. They’ve also been able to include parents in their virtual programming and are anxious to continue that new tradition.

What Hillel is looking at now, is how to continue to participate at any ASU welcoming events. Currently there are some virtual happenings planned to help students identify clubs and acclimate to the school.

“Hillel helps people make friends and make a very large university feel more manageable,” Yunker Kail said.

Over the summer they’ve texted with at least 600 students who attended their events. They’ve also been working with their counterpart at University of Arizona on a virtual program about racial justice to understand what Jewish identity means in terms of playing a role in that movement. “It’s been really wonderful,” Yunker Kail said.

When it comes to safety, Yunker Kail said Hillel won’t put its members into any unsafe places or situations with everyone back on campus. “It’s not going to look like a normal year,” she said, but she thinks ASU will do its best to ensure the health and safety of its very large student population. She and her staff are prepared to do the same for Hillel members.

One silver lining of the pandemic is it led them to reexamine everything they do in a year. Before it seemed like they were on autopilot. Now they make sure that everything they do has meaning. “We spent a lot of time this summer thinking about why we do the things we do,” she said.

Some regular programming will continue even if it’s virtual right now. Yunker Kail said there’s no firm decision yet about when Zoom Shabbats will be held in person again. Some decisions just have to wait. Some programming could be in person as long as people aren’t in a small space inside. In Phoenix, that will have to wait for some time, or at least, as Yunker Kail said, “when we can be outside for more than a few minutes at a time.” JN

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