Hillel shifts to DIY Shabbat and virtual services

Engagement efforts include DIY Shabbat and MotiVote

Fran McDonough

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that Professor Art Goldsmith will be speaking on Oct. 15. The correct speaker is Professor Robert Strong. 


With COVID-19 restrictions persisting at Washington and Lee University, student organizations have all been affected in one way or another. Groups have been forced to modify their normal events and outreach in a way that still promotes community despite distance guidelines.

One group attempting to navigate these changes resourcefully has been Hillel. As a member of Hillel International, Hillel at Washington and Lee is charged with “celebrating Jewish learning and living” on campus.

But achieving this goal has been “a real challenge,” explains Sam Bluestone, ‘22, president of Hillel Board, as Hillel attempts to overcome the current situation.

“Much of our programming . . . relies on us being together and participating in-person,” he said.

Case in point, in the last two weeks Hillel was unable to host their usual gatherings for the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“In a normal year, we would have a rabbinic student with us on campus for the holidays,” explained Maggie Shapiro Haskett, director of Jewish life at Washington and Lee, “and we would welcome students, faculty and staff from W&L and VMI along with members of the local Jewish community to services held at Hillel.”

This year, High Holiday prayer services were instead held over Zoom with two rabbinic students from Hebrew Union College in attendance as well as W&L students, alumni, and even parents of students, Shapiro Haskett said.

“Although it was disappointing to not have everyone together,” Bluestone said, “the virtual services were still meaningful and well put together.”

Both Bluestone and Shapiro Haskett were positive when describing Hillel’s outlook going forward.

“Hillel’s main focus is what it always has been– creating an inclusive Jewish community,” said Shapiro Haskett.

“We’re [now] just pivoting away from our traditional large, in-person gatherings to more small scale, personal engagement,” she said.

This transition is best exemplified in Hillel’s new “First Year Students of Hillel” Program (FYSH), in which Jewish first years are paired with upperclassmen Jewish students who can serve as mentors during the year. Through this “big/little” type of system, Hillel has placed a high priority on individual first year engage- ment and connection.

Hillel has also readjusted its popular Friday Night Shabbat dinners to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions.

Describing Shabbat as Hillel’s “bread and butter” programming, Bluestone explained that Hillel is now offering “DIY Shabbat” for students to do at home.

As both Shapiro Haskett and Bluestone illustrated, the DIY Shabbat process is quite simple: from Sunday to Wednesday of each week, Washington and Lee undergraduate and law students and Virginia Military Institute students can fill out a short form located in Hillel’s Instagram bio (@wluhillel) to sign up for DIY Shabbat.

After this, students will receive a “Shabba-tote” each Friday “complete with candles, challah, grape juice, a how-to card with all the blessings, and even a sweet treat,” said Shapiro Haskett.

In return for posting a picture of your DIY Shabbat on social media and tagging @wluhillel, Hillel is offering either dining services vouchers or $10 reimbursements per person for restaurant takeout or groceries.

Having participated in DIY Shabbat several times with her home group, Anna Hurst, ‘22, said “Shabbat has been a great way for me to feel connected with W&L’s Jewish community and has definitely brought me and my room- mates together.”

With over 100 students participating in DIY Shabbat so far, Shapiro Haskett and Bluestone each consider the program a success, and express excitement that Hillel’s other events will be just as promising.

Like always, Hillel is continuing its weekly Jewish Learning Fellowship meetings, although virtually, which focus on the study of Jewish texts and their contemporary relevance.

Hillel is focusing specifically on civic engagement this semester, hosting a speaker series leading up to the election which features faculty from several different Washington and Lee departments. The next speaker will be Professor Strong from the politics department, whose talk is on Oct. 15th.

Additionally, Hillel has spearheaded a MotiVote chapter on our campus, which works through student organizations to non-partisanly promote voter registration for the upcoming election.

As Shapiro Haskett expressed, “[Hillel’s] hope for this year is that students will be able to feel like they’re part of the Hillel family, no matter what COVID-19 throws at us.”