Like every community and institution, the last month at Slifka Center has been a series of responses to the unprecedented challenges posed by the Coronavirus outbreak. Now that we have cleared those initial disoriented weeks, we are taking a moment to reflect and share how we are refocusing our work of building Jewish community and nurturing students.
Our most consistent and fundamental priority has been safety – for our students, our staff, and the broader community. We followed Yale’s aggressive lead in rapidly closing Slifka Center, and took early steps in the New Haven Jewish community to discourage the types of social gatherings that had been known to lead to spread in New York and Israel. No gathering, no matter how exciting or how long-planned, is worth the risk.
Built on this commitment to safety, we have supported our students and broader community in three primary ways: providing stability, meeting financial need, and addressing the spiritual moment.
Providing Stability: Students’ lives have been turned upside down by the virus in the present and future – and we have sought to provide a stable, reliable base of relationships and community to help them navigate this challenging terrain together. Here many of the core Hillel methodologies – maintaining constant one-on-one communication with every student, embracing the diversity of our community, and empowering student leaders to take on leadership – have proved more valuable than ever. We have essentially moved our normal programs, classes, and services on-line; we have been in one-on-one contact with well over 100 students to hear about their lives and let them know someone is thinking of them; and we have even held student-board elections. And we have found a variety of new ways of gathering, creating asynchronous conversations to replace those that would have happened over lunch. All of this has been particularly essential as the diversity of students has only come to the fore – while campus is a great equalizer, differences in home situations from access to the internet to having a room of one’s own are magnified now – so developing a diverse and tailored approach is all the more important.
Meeting Financial Need: The financial dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic have touched everyone – including the Yale community. Since Yale has recently diversified its student body, a number of students rely on it for their own material well being, and that of their families. In addition to distributing over $2,000 in direct grants to students in need, we have taken steps to ensure that workers impacted by the closure of the Slifka Center dining hall are made as whole as possible for their lost wages. Finally, we are planning carefully for the long-term financial health of Slifka Center as an institution in the event that the current economic downturn becomes a recession, or worse. This process will be painful, but is necessary.
Addressing the Spiritual Moment: Spiritual support and inspiration are needed now more than ever, and we have made addressing the challenges of a foreboding future, a rapidly shifting present, and the emotional difficulty of family members’ sicknesses a central part of what we have done. The heart of this work has been numerous pastoral conversations with students who have lost family members to COVID-19 or themselves been sick, who have been unable to attend funerals because of travel restrictions, and who are struggling with loneliness and depression due to social distancing. We have also produced materials – a series of weekly emails that have been read over 10,000 times, an online session for students and alumni planning Passover celebrations over Zoom. Most importantly, we have empowered students and community members to support one another – with students producing not one but two amazing Haggadah supplements, and members of the local New Haven Jewish community buying one another groceries and calling one another over the holiday.
Throughout all of this, we have been keenly aware that our students and our community have never needed us as much as they do now – and never been more grateful for the engagement and support of everyone who makes our work possible.
Please do not hesitate to reach out as you have questions or ideas, or ways that we can be of service.
Uri Cohen, Executive Director
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale