For hundreds of thousands of college students, local Hillel groups are the hub of Jewish life on campus — a place to make friends, attend a Shabbat dinner, or build leadership skills through community service projects.
As the COVID-19 pandemic closed campuses across the country, a virtual alternative to this vital organization took shape thanks to Clark student Ari Hoffman ’21. Days before moving home to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the economics major created Zoom University Hillel — a Facebook group where students across the nation can post memes, share recipes, and even link to virtual game nights.
“It was kind of a joke at first, and then it took off,” Hoffman says. “A lot of people were interested.”
Hoffman came up with the idea after joining a Facebook meme group called Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens. He posted on the page asking whether anyone would be interested in joining a virtual Hillel group, and circulated the concept among his friends — especially those involved in Clark University Hillel. Based on the feedback he received, Hoffman decided to create the page.
“Originally, it was my close friends who joined and invited all their friends,” he says. “I posted back in the first group, as well. We all wanted it to grow, so we reached out to whoever we could.”
Within days, Zoom University Hillel had thousands of members. Two weeks later, that number has grown to more than 13,000 people and counting. Hoffman says that while members are spread across the country, many have discovered they share mutual friends with others in the group.
“There’s this thing called ‘Jewish geography,’ ” he says. “It’s friends who know other people because they’re Jewish, so there have been a lot of connections made through that.”
Hoffman says that members initially were looking to connect with others in their region or find people with similar interests. Now, the group is filled with conversation starters like, “What’s your favorite controversial food?” and “What do you or what did you call your grandparents?” Members also post links to everything from virtual Torah study to speed dating.
Over the past few weeks, Zoom University Hillel has been featured in news outlets including The Times of Israel, The Boston Globe, and World Israel News.
“I made this thinking it would be a fun space for people to connect,” Hoffman says. “I never imagined it would grow to what it is.”
The group’s fate relies on what happens once social distancing ends and students return to their daily lives.
“It depends where people’s interests are,” he says. “Some people might get busy with being back to their normal lives. I know a lot of people have more time right now because they’re home and classes are less intense, so this is something for them to do.”
Hoffman, who was elected treasurer of Clark University Hillel this semester, looks forward to returning to campus. The University’s Hillel is still holding virtual meetings, which he says has been a good way for members to stay connected.
“It’s a close group,” he says. “We all know each other, we’re all friends, and so that aspect of it has been really nice.”