A year ago, I was spending the semester at American University in Washington, gaining more experience for my journalism major at my actual college, Clark University.
I had an in-person internship in PR with Susan Davis International, where I helped with press releases, media lists and research. I attended journalism conferences and panels, including a talk on Afghanistan at The U.S. Institute of Peace during which I appeared on C-SPAN after asking a question on women’s rights and education. With new friends, I explored poetry slams, coffee shops, graffiti and of course the free museums in the nation’s capital. D.C. was becoming a new home for me.
But with the pandemic, these experiences — what everyone has said was supposed to be part of the best years of my life — vanished. Like a snap of the fingers, my life, like everyone else’s around me, became isolated and virtual.
I was supposed to stay at home, with family, and self-quarantine as much as possible while attending classes over Zoom and maintaining my internship remotely. Eleven months later, nothing has changed.
But it hasn’t all been bad. College Jews on social media have formed an online community that, for an extrovert like me, has given me the ability to flourish and to continue necessary social interactions with others my age. Because of this, despite being locked up, I don’t feel so alone and I’m able to handle the mental health challenges of being cooped up a bit better.
One of my close friends at Clark, Ari Hoffman, created a Facebook group that is now considered perhaps the main gathering area for Jewish college students. In the early days of the pandemic, Hoffman jokingly asked in another group, “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens,” if anyone would be interested in joining a virtual Hillel group. The feedback was instantaneous — and Zoom University Hillel was created.
Now, with nearly 15,000 members, Zoom University Hillel spans the globe with memes, recipes, links to Shabbat services and game nights, discussions about the time we are living in and Jewish life in general and — of course — inevitable Jewish geography games.
Yet to me, the silly games and Jewish discussions aren’t the most important aspect of the group. It’s the fact that I have a real and substantial connection to others. My cell phone and laptop have allowed me to go beyond the four walls of my family home to include others who are using their social media to do the same.
The detachment from reality that I felt at the onset of the pandemic faded away somewhat, thanks to Zoom University Hillel. People reached out to me. Facebook posts encouraged me to persevere and celebrate what I’ve accomplished during quarantine. We came together, sometimes in our Zoom University Hillel sweatshirts and t-shirts, to cope with the unordinary and unknown.
My cell phone and laptop have allowed me to go beyond the four walls of my family home.
I am also participating in Yoga Otzma, a program for college students created by Philadelphia-area artist and yoga instructor Evan Joblin and sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. A few times a week, I mindfully flow on my yoga mat from Mountain Pose to Downward Dog and into Warrior One. But instead of the Lululemon-wearing, tight-hairbunned yogis around me in a live studio setting, it’s everyone else in their Zoom squares moving alongside me and my orange, meowing cat from their bedrooms.
Yoga Otzma fuses both ancient and cutting-edge mindfulness practices with the Jewish imperative of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world — in this case repairing our inner world and mental health. Students come together and find a challenging workout, inner calm or just a distraction from the chaos surrounding us. This practice, it has turned out, has become essential for me to deal with a life so different from the one I was used to just a year ago.
College students are facing an elevated levels of depression and anxiety due to isolation, according to Psychology Today. Over 60% of 18-24 year-olds “met the criteria for an anxiety or depressive disorder,” and over a quarter had seriously considered suicide over the past month. Pandemics are stressful: Businesses are closed, isolation is dissociative, and social media is ceaseless. People are on edge and high strung, overcome with frustration, confusion, and depression — often all in the same day. These trends are only worsening as the pandemic continues.
These Jewish practices — yoga and mindfulness as well as participating in an online community — have allowed me to practice self-care and healthy mental habits, two things essential to a positive life in isolation. I have been able to practically escape the dangerous mental health trends so many other students are facing.
In particular, due to the online format and sheer number of people involved, Hillel has been able to expand and encompass more features than ever. I know that I am part of something bigger. The scope of the outreach is unimaginable, yet somehow I still feel closer to Jewish students everywhere.
Monica Sager is a senior at Clark University, double majoring in psychology and self-design journalism with a minor in English.
Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at firstname.lastname@example.org.