How Jewish students are putting the J into UJS during lockdown

Esther Offenberg
Esther Offenberg

We keep hearing the phrase of “unprecedented times” over and over again – but what does that really mean? One result of those “times” is everything moving online and in many ways students and the younger generation are far more equipped for that shift, having taken social media, university digital learning platforms or pre-recorded lectures as a given over the past couple years. However, being online has brought a whole new connotation with it.

Where before digital platforms were a pastime, an escape, a tool; they have now turned into a necessity for human connection. Jewish students miss their Jewish societies, their campus life, their community and for a lot of people this has led to them ‘checking out early’, not engaging in their role as a student the way they always had, when that opportunity actually hasn’t gone away. It’s harder to incite excitement, interest and drive over the internet, when the world seems to be changing constantly.

The other side of this new challenge was the immediate reality of having to stay home or in some cases, to stay away from home to not endanger family members. That is a situation that unfortunately many Jewish students also faced, having to stay in their university accommodation as they were experiencing mild symptoms, or their family were. This left a number of students alone in their dorm rooms, with housemates going home or self-isolating in their rooms. In addition, shortly after lockdown was announced, Pesach already came around the corner, which brought up a whole new round of questions of how to deal with this during these challenging and turbulent times. That definitely wasn’t an issue exclusive to students – on the other hand, that struggle and search seemed to unite the Jewish community. Yet, for some students that meant celebrating Pesach for the first time by themselves, away from home, when they had always been a family member at the seder table and not the one in charge. We, at UJS produced a Pesach resource to support and inspire, addressing many of the questions students will have been asking themselves and others. However, that does not make up for the mental and emotional struggle students, and many of us are experiencing throughout this time.

Nevertheless, we keep going, trying to ease, support and celebrate wherever possible – as a community, as students, as people. A drive and sensitivity I have been greatly admiring and finding comfort in. One way is through variety – there are only so many Instagram nomination challenges one can do. At UJS we have been working hard to produce a wide variety of interesting, exciting content; accessible to all students. Whether through a weekly fun and easy cooking show or a “Table Talk” series exploring the history and challenges of different minorities or continuing to put the J in UJS, with students giving a weekly dvar torah and sharing their own insights. Students want to be involved, want to volunteer and help and widen their horizons, even when their world is tipped upside down. And it is our job to facilitate all of that, while also being a caring support network – a job we love doing every single day.

About the Author
Esther Offenberg is president of the Union of Jewish Students
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