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Bringing Richmond to GMU: A High Holiday Experience in a Covid World

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Students and staff pose at George Mason Hillel event.

By Zack Samuels & Rabbi Daniel Novick

George Mason University Hillel

For over 25 years, George Mason University Hillel has been working hard to meet the needs of the ever-changing and growing Jewish student population on campus.

With over 1,000 Jewish students, GMU is a place that focuses on creating an innovative and diverse campus atmosphere. And when it comes to innovation and meeting current needs, GMU Hillel prides itself on adapting, pivoting, and innovating with our students.

GMU Hillel focuses on building relationships with students and working with them to create initiatives that appeal to the current college student. This strategy has increased our engagement numbers this year by over 50%!

Hillel students gather for a song session – “Yom Kippur Chill.”

One such example of how this works is with our most recent High Holiday programming. During the High Holidays this year, George Mason University Hillel revamped its High Holiday offerings to adapt to the still ever-changing Covid world.

We asked our students, “What do you want the High Holidays to look like this year?” And the result – over 50 students engaged with us this High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah began with an outdoor Happy (New Year) Hour with snacks and a musical service.

We also gathered together for a community Tashlich and Shofar Blast with our Jewish organizations on campus. For Yom Kippur, we held a pre-fast meal and a Kol Nidre Service, and ended the holiday with a “Yom Kippur Chill.”

This song session offered those participating in the holiday a time to hang out, sing, and discuss how the songs we sang related back to the themes of Judaism and Yom Kippur.

A core aspect of our offerings this year was a “Virtual Synagogue Hop” where students each morning of the holidays came together to livestream services. We “hopped” from Washington, D.C., to New York to Oxford, England, and, yes – to Richmond, Virginia!

Our Jewish Identity Chair, Zack Samuels, wanted to showcase his home Synagogue, Congregation Or Atid, to his Hillel family at Mason. Much to our excitement, when we turned on the livestream, Zack’s family was given an Aliyah to the Torah.

His parents read the introductory prayers, then his sister confidently and expertly read the Torah Passage. It was a beautiful moment.

 

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