In a time of coronavirus and quarantine, while college students are apart from each other, Ari Hoffman, a Clark University junior, created a Facebook group that now can be considered the hub of Jewish life on many college campuses.
Zoom University Hillel, which at the time of this writing has over 13,000 members, has spanned across the world to bring memes, recipes, links to game nights and Jewish discussion to students in their time of need.
“It was kind of a joke at first, and then it took off,” Hoffman said. “A lot of people were interested.”
The idea came about when Hoffman posted in a group called “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens.” He asked if anyone would be interested in joining in a virtual Hillel group, an idea that he and his friends at ClarkU Hillel conceived. The feedback was instant, positive and huge.
Within days, the Zoom University Hillel group had thousands of members, and it still, three weeks later, continues to grow.
Posts range from serious questions about Passover to Jewish geography and even some people looking for a Jewish partner.
“I made this thinking it would be a fun space for people to connect,” Hoffman said. “I never imagined it would grow to what it is.”
Zoom University Hillel has been able to create a forum for Jewish students when they cannot connect in person with their college group anymore.
“I think Zoom University Hillel takes what Hillel does on every campus and makes it 20 times better because of the circumstance, the diversity and the networking across the world,” said Yudi Wexler, a junior from Baruch College.
Zoom University Hillel has been able to create outreach beyond what a college could do just from their campus.
“Everything Hillel offers, Zoom University Hillel is doing it bigger,” said Wexler, an admin for the group. “Everybody at their Hillels, they had their communities. They brought it here.”
The group has also been able to connect people worldwide.
“I’m in Israel right now on a semester off, and everything’s kind of distant for me,” said Amit Tobolsky, a sophomore at Yeshiva University and member of Baruch and City College’s Hillel. “The 13,000 people is incredible. It feels like it’s a big achievement with friends.”
Tobolsky, another admin of Zoom University Hillel, said the group allows him to have a space to “facilitate meaningful conversations and raise big ideas.”
“I love that we’re giving a place to things I love,” he said. “You just see joy that you managed to create a group like this.”
People have been able to connect through Zoom University Hillel over commonalities.
“There’s these random conversations that you look into and see this incredible thing,” Tobolsky said about the community bonding.
Many people have shared recipes, from Passover-friendly to falafel and bagels. Jayley Halpern-Drock, a sophomore from University of Central Florida, asked the group for challah, rugelach and babka recipes.
“I was super bored and wanted to bake something,” Halpern-Drock said. “The feedback was good. I got a lot of suggestions.”
Halpern-Drock made a challah from the eight recipes she received. “It was so good,” she said.
People have shared movie and show recommendations as they turn to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ during their free time in quarantine.
Students have also been able to share their own hobbies and interests, like Ross Putnam Gaft, graduate of Eastern Michigan University, who shared a list of his chocolate milk rankings from around the world.
“I’ve been drinking chocolate milk for as long as I can remember, and one day back in 2013 my friends bought me a bunch of different brands to review,” Gaft said. “I didn’t start the list until Aug. 24, 2018. I was doing a study abroad and wanted to show all the exciting places I was visiting but didn’t want to do the typical cliché Instagram way.”
Gaft created Chocolate Milk Connoisseur on Instagram. Now that he isn’t traveling, the account promotes farmers and brings their stories to a larger audience.
“I posted it in the group because I thought some people might enjoy it and that it would create a lively debate,” Gaft said. “I also hoped it would introduce me to other brands I haven’t tried yet.”
Wexler said he has been able to connect with people at his own college too through this group that he hadn’t been able to before. Someone reached out to him and said they were always nervous to attend events alone. When school restarts in the fall, the two of them will go together.
People have created off-shoot groups. There are three different dating pages, an LGBTQ page, a page about mental health, a page for New York Jews and even one for “Star Wars” lovers.
“My hope is that it’s something that continues,” Wexler said. “I’m sure there will still be some online events going forward.”
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