In the face of an unprecedented challenge, something extraordinary has happened. Over the past two weeks, the entire Hillel movement changed its service delivery model from in-person student engagement to a fully virtual Hillel experience. Hillel of San Diego made this pivot, too. Why? Because our students at CSUSM, SDSU, UC San Diego and USD are counting on Hillel to provide stability, compassion and community at a time of deep uncertainty in their lives.

Seniors who would have celebrated their graduation in a few months are devastated to end their college careers like this and are frightened about heading into a recession with a double-digit unemployment rate.

This week, SDSU residential students were given less than 48 hours’ notice that they needed to move out of their residence halls, and students at our three other schools have been asked to leave as soon as possible — no later than these deadlines: USD – March 22; UC San Diego – March 29; and CSUSM – April 5.

This abrupt ending to the school year is utterly painful for students.

As students leave hastily — as if they had no time for bread to rise, we might say at this time of year — a freshman took the time to write this touching message to our SDSU Campus Director reflecting on her first year with Hillel:

“You believed in me when I literally couldn’t. You instilled in me confidence to accomplish things when I didn’t feel like I could. You were there to hold me and guide me through the messiest of messes and I could not be more grateful. Most importantly you LOVED me unconditionally. It breaks my heart that my first year with Hillel has ended, but it has been more than I could have ever imagined.”

I am in awe of our Hillel of San Diego professional team, and they should be commended for showing up in this moment with a leadership mentality and an entrepreneurial spirit even while their own lives have been so disrupted. They know their students are counting on them, and there is no time for despair. They are working from home but making every moment count. They are the role models our students need right now, and the students will never forget it.

Our campus directors and program staff are in the process of contacting every student we know to give them reassurance and support. Each conversation has been meaningful. Students are thanking us profusely for checking in on them.

We have also reached out to university administrators to let them know how we are supporting students. Their response has been overwhelmingly positive expressing deep appreciation for the role Hillel is playing in this crisis.

Going forward, to give students a sense of community, Hillel has organized a series virtual hangouts, Jewish learning workshops and presentations – both locally and nationally. Over the past few days, a team at Hillel International created a new “Hillel @Home” initiative featuring some extraordinary speakers and workshops for students everywhere to participate in via Zoom. Take a look at the phenomenal offerings at the Hillel @ Home website.

Locally, the Hillel of San Diego professionals are working together to create virtual events for our students. Here’s what’s on tap so far:

Hillel @ Home

Our first test of this new model was last Friday, when UC San Diego Hillel hosted a Shabbat candle lighting on Zoom for about ten students. Nikki Golumb, our UC San Diego Springboard Fellow led a d’var Torah, lit the candles and talked about the importance of hand-washing (now, more than just a ritual before making motzi). We’ll continue this new, virtual candle-lighting tradition every other week for students to gather from all over the country to check in with each other for a peaceful moment in a community they crave.

As we prepare to bring in Shabbat tonight amidst a state-wide shutdown of everything but the essentials, it is worth recalling the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He wrote in his classic book, The Sabbath: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”

This is a moment to take stock of all that we hold dear. In this “sanctuary of time” during Shabbat, may we find the fortitude to persevere and the grace to help others in need.

On behalf of everyone at Hillel of San Diego, I thank you for your support during this difficult time, and I wish you strength and good health.

Shabbat shalom.