How Tufts Hillel Is Building Community Amid COVID-19

From matzah delivery service to virtual seders, the Jewish community is staying connected and accepting the imperfect
Student leaders from Tufts Hillel held a virtual mental health seder to come together as a community amid COVID-19. Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Jordan Braunig
Student leaders from Tufts Hillel held a virtual mental health seder to come together as a community amid COVID-19. Photo: Courtesy of Rabbi Jordan Braunig
April 17, 2020

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Passover is normally a time when the Jewish community comes together to celebrate spring and liberation, and families and friends gather for a traditional feast called a seder. This year, COVID-19 made that impossible—in more ways than one.

For starters, some local students were having trouble finding matzah, an important symbol and ingredient in Passover meals, in grocery stores. Other students were quarantined and couldn’t go to stores to buy supplies. Word of these difficulties spread to Rabbi Jordan Braunig at Tufts Hillel.

As Director of Community Building at Tufts Hillel, Braunig mentors about 20 student fellows who are a part of the Initiative for Innovative Community Building. He and some of these student leaders organized a front-porch matzah delivery service, where volunteers wearing masks and gloves brought boxes of the unleavened bread to people in the Medford/Somerville area on April 8, the first day of Passover.

“Matzah is the centerpiece of this holiday, thought of both as a bread of oppression and the food of our freedom.  It is hard to celebrate Passover without these simple squares of unleavened bread,” he explained.

Rabbi Jordan Braunig and student leaders at Tufts Hillel organized a matzah delivery service in Medford and Somerville. Photo: Courtesy of Rabbi Jordan Braunig

A few days later, Braunig and another student leader, sophomore Allyson Birger, hosted a virtual mental-health seder, where people connected through Zoom to mark the occasion from their own homes. Birger joined from her family’s home near San Francisco, where she went when students left campus in March.

“We talked about ways that we've been coping with taking care of ourselves during this crisis,” Birger said. “We connected a lot of the ideas from the Passover seder to mental-health crises and created a space for students to talk about their experiences.”

She said that with a little choreographing, the event ran smoothly. The attendees all read from different parts of the Haggadah , and they coordinated the order ahead of time. But she acknowledged that the computer isn’t a very intimate setting.

“It's definitely hard because you want to stay a community in these instances, but it's harder when not everybody's there in person,” she said. “I've personally found virtual socialization can become really exhausting, but you have to do it or else it's easy to go into yourself and become really lonely.”

Birger said she missed her friends and being able to hug people. But she has found value in the camaraderie among her classmates in her online classes for her sociology major.

Braunig agreed about the importance of surrounding yourself with positive influences, but he stressed that we can also accept our imperfections. And, he said, religious space should welcome people in all their complexity.

“Much of our celebration of Passover is about a journey toward freedom.  In some ways it is easy to feel bound up by stigma around mental-health struggle; telling our stories is a way of asserting a sense of liberation from this stigma,” he said. “For students in this challenging time, it can feel really important to link spiritual practice with the very real challenges with mental illness.”

Birger said the Hillel community has always been a supportive one, and she hoped these outreach efforts will create more community when students come back to campus.

And to further demonstrate that welcoming spirit, some of the Hillel students put together a video for the incoming Class of 2024, sharing with them what they love about Tufts and its Jewish community. You can see it here.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.