It had been a really long, emotional week. I had just moved into my dorm room at Wesleyan University and I was in the midst of a mandatory — and very isolating — two-week quarantine. I decided to log onto the first Shabbat of the year, hosted by the Wesleyan Jewish Community (a student led, non denominational, pluralistic Jewish group on campus). Immediately I was greeted with smiling faces, friendly introductions, and familiar prayers like “Lecha Dodi” and “Oseh Shalom.” Even though the isolation was hard, I felt like, if I was able to celebrate Shabbat each week with this community, I would make it the three months to Thanksgiving.
Still, this is not what I had in mind for my freshman year of college.
Like many other first-year Jewish students trying to navigate the unfamiliarity of college, my plan had always been to head straight to the first Shabbat dinner on campus I could find. Hopefully, I’d make some friends there. For my whole life, I had been part of one Jewish community or another. My family is religiously and culturally Jewish — being Jewish is a big part of our lives. Whether it was my synagogue or my high school’s Jewish Student Coalition, I always had a Jewish home away from home.
For me, having Jewish friends and being in Jewish community spaces is extremely important; they act as spaces of comfort and familiarity, as well as dynamic places for social justice. I’d been anticipating what my first High Holiday services would be like away from home, and the excitement of making space for myself in a whole new Jewish community at school.
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic changed all that.
Shabbat is no longer come one, come all (you have to sign up with a Google form) and I wasn’t able to go home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even if I had wanted to. However, the Jewish community is never one to sit around and do nothing, so, of course, many Jewish college communities are reimagining their programming this fall. In my two-week quarantine, alone, there were two Zoom Shabbats, the establishment of a Jewish “big/little program” where I was matched with a sophomore also in the Jewish community at Wesleyan, and a Jewish “speed dating” Zoom event. At first, these events felt awkward, but I quickly realized this was a beautiful community, trying their best to accept me and my classmates in the most genuine way they could. Of course, it wasn’t what I was expecting out of the Jewish community at college, but this year, nothing is the way I expected it to be.
Once my university’s quarantine lifted, we were able to have in-person Shabbats. We sit in a circle (outside), masks on, six-feet apart, but we get to sing together, and most importantly, be in-person together. They are weird, for sure, but they are still wonderful.
Even though these services are different from what I was used to, and I had never met any of these people before, being in this community felt like I was finding a little part of what could be my home for the next four years. Since these first couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to know all sorts of people in the community, some of whom I would call friends now, and all of whom have become friendly faces on campus. I hope that I can be what the upperclassmen have been for me for a first year someday: a familiar face, a comforting conversation, and a good laugh. I feel so grateful to be a part of this community right now because I feel like I have a group of people on campus that will support me in whatever way I need it. Being Jewish is a connecting thread that has given me a home here at Wesleyan.
It’s difficult to redefine our cultural and religious communal moments in this time of social distancing. This semester is so weird. Half of my classes meet online, half of my classes meet half in person and half online. Currently, I can’t hug anybody or do any non-essential unmasking around anyone. Especially while at college, there is no greater desire than to meet new faces and make new connections. Yet, however frustrating and upsetting it may be, that just isn’t possible in the same way it used to be right now. But I know that my own Jewish communities are doing their best to keep people engaged. At this point, what Jewish students need is any way to stay connected to their traditions, culture, and fellow Jews, virtual or otherwise.
Header image by FatCamera/Getty Images.