By Andrew Zucker
Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts announced on March 12, that all classes would be moved online. While professors prepared for the shift, one student decided to make sure he wouldn’t lose the connections made at school.
Less than a week into virtual classes, Ari Hoffman, an economics major at Clark, had an idea of creating a Facebook group to connect Jewish students throughout the globe, became a reality on March 15, and “Zoom University Hillel” was born. What started out as a couple of invites to friends quickly grew, amassing over 13,500 members as of April 4 and far surpassing Hoffman’s initial projections for the group.
“I first posted about the idea of creating a Hillel group on the ‘Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens’ page,” Hoffman said. “I had no idea it would grow to be like this though, I figured it would stay at just a few hundred members based on the original feedback from the other post.”
As the group started to grow in popularity, posts of all natures started to appear. The most common posts consist of Jewish geography, as well as invites to private Zoom’s for Friday night Shabbat dinners, Netflix hangouts and even a live DJ performance. For some people, the reason for joining was simple, they now had a jewish community to connect with.
“I joined Zoom Uni Hillel since, as a Jewish teen with only a handful of other Jewish kids at a Catholic college, it can be fun,” Alyssa Arda, accounting and finance major at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said. “I wanted to get closer to the Jewish community, and at a time where everything is uncertain, this has really helped… I have participated in multiple Zoom meetings, including Shabbat dinner, and I guarantee you that if I was at school right now, I wouldn’t have done it.”
While Arda had very few opportunities to mingle with other Jewish students at her campus before it shut down, Emily Glazer, a student at the University of Cincinnati, took advantage of some of the opportunities she had on campus to be involved in Jewish life.
“I didn’t participate as much as I anticipated with Jewish life on campus,” Glazer said. “But, I did make a small group of Jewish friends. I saw the Zoom Hillel Facebook page and figured that this would be a fun and new way to meet other Jewish college students… I enjoy the page because it’s interesting to see who’s out there and have people with commonalities to connect with.”
Zoom University has become so successful that numerous other subgroups have been created as a result, one of which is MeetJew University, a Facebook group for Jewish dating that has garnered over 30,000 members. Aside from MeetJew and a few other dating pages, members have created locale-based pages, mental health pages and meme chats.
While most of these communities are on Facebook, others are scattered over other social platforms, like GroupMe. Jenna Korsten, an Allied Health major with a concentration in Occupational Therapy at the University of Tampa, used GroupMe to create her own page, “Zoom University Hillel Mental Health Check-In.”
“I grew up going through a lot of depression when I was younger,” Korsten said. “I saw many people posting some of the issues they were facing, and I felt this group would be a good way for people to let their emotions out. This time of Covid-19 can be stressful, and if you are already feeling lonely, now you are sitting in your house all day.
Subgroups like Korsten’s have caught the attention of Monica Sager, one of the original creators and current administrator of “Zoom University Hillel.” Sager, a journalism and psychology double major at Clark University, loves the “bonding experience” they provide.
“I think they’re really great and can really help benefit people,” Sager said. “Mental health is always a tricky thing, but even more so now. We’re all going through a trauma. It’s important to look after yourself.
When asked to describe “Zoom University Hillel” and all that it has become, Hoffman summed it up in five words.
“A separated but strong community.”