By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – Leadership for the Hillels in Calgary and Edmonton say that although this school year poses a unique set of challenges with limits on physical interaction, a shift to more online activity could provide them with the opportunity to reach more students than before.
“It definitely has had an impact, and time will tell whether it’s a positive or negative impact,” says Calgary Hillel director Danielle Braitman.
At the beginning of past school years there was an emphasis on tabling and recruitment at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, with an in-person kickoff gathering at the start of the year.
They don’t have an official presence at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, nor the Alberta College of Art and Design, but welcome students from both colleges.
“Calgary Hillel operates on multiple campuses, so the students don’t always have that opportunity to come together,” says Braitman. “We do a split between holding events at the Jewish community centre, a separate venue or doing things on the individual campuses.”
This year, they are moving all their events online, so past activities like BBQs and pool parties are not feasible.
“This presents an entirely new set of challenges, but also a lot of opportunity to engage people who maybe aren’t so comfortable in a group setting, or don’t have a vehicle, or have more time constraints, to give them that chance to connect,” Braitman said.
On average, there are about 20 students in Calgary signed up with Hillel each year, she said.
Since Calgary’s post-secondaries are largely commuter campuses, it’s been a challenge in past years to bring all the students together for Shabbat dinners, since they often have them with their families, says Braitman.
This year, they will be hosting virtual Shabbat and Havdalah services to gauge student interest, with the goal of doing them in person once physical distancing is relaxed.
Hillel put together welcome packages for their membership this year, providing them with Shabbat and Havdalah ritual kits, as well as wellness kits to provide students with mental and physical health resources, she added.
Braitman says Hillel is hoping to engage more Jewish graduate students, who often don’t have the time to participate in extracurricular activity.
“We’re hoping that with these virtual platforms, we’ll see an increase in availability for those students and a little bit of a different vibe for Hillel altogether,” she said.
Edmonton Hillel is taking a more blended approach, with smaller in-person gatherings, in addition to virtual events.
Lior Erlich, Edmonton Hillel’s president, says their face-to-face events will require students to RSVP and will mostly take place outdoors, so they can ensure appropriate physical distancing.
“At the same time, we still want to bring out this sense of community, because it can feel very isolating for different people who aren’t having the same interactions they can usually get from Hillel,” said Erlich. “We want to maintain this communication between others who can feel they are part of the Jewish community that is there to support them and have their backs. Everyone will still have as much fun as we normally have.”
Edmonton Hillel has its main operations at University of Alberta, but also has students from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and MacEwan University, as well as Grade 12 students who are going into university, she added. Typically, they have 20 to 30 members.
Some activities, particularly those that generally occur indoors with a large amount of students, such as their Jeopardy-style quiz event, will be moved online.
Erlich says this provides an opportunity to reach more students who may be shy about attending in-person activities.
“They may have more confidence to engage with online events than through direct contact events,” she said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Alberta Jewish News.