COVID or Not, Hillel Keeps Connecting

Back in September of 2020, Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner, the Executive Director of Hillel at Stanford, publicly proclaimed that Hillel would “create an experience of meaning, community, and connection… and enter into the new year with joy and with hope as the Jewish people have managed to do for 5781 years!” Those were bold words considering our struggles in the midst of the pandemic.

Yet, four months later, a look at the programmatic offerings, adaptations, and outreach that Stanford’s Hillel has made makes it clear that Kirschner’s assurances are coming to fruition. And, despite the pandemic, much the same can be said for the other Bay Area Hillels that have stepped up their efforts to reach out to students who are yearning for meaningful relationships and pathways to deepen their Jewish identities.

Hillel at Stanford's Dead Sea Spa Night

“We're focused on bringing as many people as we can into the conversation,” said UC Santa Cruz Hillel Executive Director, Sarah Cohen Domont. Toward that end, Domont and her staff have doubled their programming output since COVID-19 began and have offered both in-person and Zoom events through their Hillel Learning Fellowship. And with events ranging from Power and Politics to Sex and Drugs in the Talmud, their curriculum is as diverse as their student body.

“Our slogan is ‘A Jewish Home for All Students.’… And that’s what we’re trying to provide.”

“We’re not a monolithic community,” said Rabbi Kirschner. “And I think there are many ways into Jewish life.” Accordingly, the Northern California Hillels have been reaching out to their students wherever they may be, however they may practice, and under whatever terms they may identify. They have been conducting outreach to both grad students and undergrads, by phone, email, and, when possible, masked face to masked face. Moreover, they have been sending out hundreds of care packages to students all across the country: a large scale expression of care with the added benefit of keeping them connected to as many people as they can reach.

But not everyone…

While many of the obstacles to Jewish engagement for Bay Area college students are rather well documented: apathy, an abundance of competing choices, lack of access… there are two issues that are having a major impact not only on their ability to connect and engage Jewishly but to survive: mental health and food insecurity.

“We have students who struggle really deeply with anxiety and depression,” said Kirschner.

“And when you add the health crisis, grief, and loss on top of that, it’s a lot to handle.” Additionally, she added, it was quite disturbing to discover that many of their students, particularly those from other countries, are not getting enough to eat. “A lot of them received stipends that look really generous when they were sitting in Tel Aviv, but then you add in the cost of living in the Bay Area and that money disappears really fast. Frankly, we were shocked to learn from some of our students how vulnerable they really were.”

To combat that susceptibility, several Hillels, including both Stanford’s and Berkeley’s, have partnered with the Federation and through grant dollars from its Newhouse Fund, are providing students access to mental health and food services through community-based programs.

The staff of Hillel at Stanford prepared “Hillel Hug Bags” for those on campus to pick up from a safe distance

Despite their demonstrated ability to adapt to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, the obvious hope of our Bay Area Hillel leaders is that they will go back to being “place-based communities” as soon as they possibly can. But there is a sense that some lasting lessons may come from their shared trauma. Or as Rabbi Kirschner observed:

“Displacement and dislocation are not foreign to the Jewish experience. In fact, one way of looking at it is that they are central to our experience.

And not always being able to be in our familiar and holy places is part of what has helped to build resilience into the Jewish spirit, the Jewish psyche, and into our neshama, our Jewish soul.”

Hillel at Stanford's Sukkah

The Federation is proud to support eight Northern California Hillels through the Campus Initiative on Israel Engagement, grants for general operating support, the new Young Adult Resilience and Belonging cohort, designated program support to address mental health needs and food insecurity at select campuses, and through donor-advised grants. The Northern California Hillels are Berkeley Hillel, Chico Hillel, Hillel at Davis & Sacramento, Hillel at Stanford, Hillel of Silicon Valley, Hillel of Sonoma County, San Francisco Hillel, and Santa Cruz Hillel.

For questions or more information, contact


January 20, 2021


Jon Moskin