The significance of community during periods of isolation cannot be overstated in 2022.

While we all know humans — and all primates for that matter — thrive in familial and group settings, we also understand that there are times where such settings are not possible. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that we might thrive in social isolation but at times (such as during a pandemic) that is exactly what we are asked to do. Rather than discuss the pandemic itself, I feel it is important to discuss community.

I am a Hillel director, and within the Hillel system I am what is called a multi-campus solopro (solo professional with more than one institution), meaning I am a Hillel of one.

 I am the director, the facilities coordinator, the outreach coordinator, the leadership, the educator, the caterer. I am all the roles. I own and wear all the hats. Solopros have an advantage in that we can really get to know the students on our smaller campuses and we really do build community. Given my position, one might presume I am accustomed to not working in community, but that presumption would be incorrect. I am in constant community in person with the administration and faculty on the campuses I serve. I am regularly in community with the local synagogues. I am regularly engaged in the interfaith community. But possibly most importantly for my work, I am in regular community with other solopro Hillel directors, and most specifically I am part of a solopro women’s cohort.

In March of 2020, the Nevada System of Higher Education and the University of Nevada in Reno closed campuses due to COVID-19.

I, and many others, shifted to online programming, using half of what Hillel International provided through a program called “Hillel at Home” and half locally originated programming. It was difficult to say the least, but with a positive attitude we kept going. All of my professional development and personal wellness conferences and retreats were shifted to online as well. While the content was just fine, there was clearly something missing. This continued from March of 2020 through August of 2021; two-and-a-half semesters and the summer sessions all online.

The fall semester of 2021 was fully in person, and we were all so very grateful!

My primary campus mandated vaccinations for all in-person classes, which kept our on-campus infection rate relatively low. My Hillel had a successful semester and as I began to consider my professional development and continuing professional education, I realized how much I missed my solopro women’s cohort. My organizational conference was scheduled for December, in person in Dallas – and then it was shifted to be online. I cannot say I was surprised, as the idea of over a thousand student-facing professionals in one place during a pandemic is a potentially dangerous situation. Nonetheless, the email came and felt like a blow to my soul.

I am not embarrassed to admit that I cried when I got the email. I knew the people, the community of sisters that refreshed me and gave me the emotional energy to not only maintain my professional presence, but also to be madly in love with the work I do, would not be sitting around a table swapping best practices, or telling me I had done a good job when I shared a particularly difficult situation. We would not be coming together to offer hugs, wisdom, or curriculum ideas that we would each take home and develop on our campuses. There would be no singing from the depths of our souls, so I wept – just a little bit.

A miracle is sometimes defined not so much as supernatural but as a highly improbable or extraordinary event, or development that brings welcome consequences. I was blessed by that kind of miracle. An email was sent to my solopro women’s cohort that a group of ladies had decided to have a mini-in person cohort only gathering. We were all fully vaccinated, an Air B n’B was rented, one of our groups provided a venue on her campus and with a variety of logistics, away we flew.

While our cohort consists of about 45 of us and this gathering was far from complete, it was wonderful. Twelve (12) of us gathered on the East coast, some offered expertise, others opened their homes for gatherings, some provided carpooling and others cleaned or set up food and the all-important coffee. It was beautifully imperfect and exactly what I, and others, needed. But why?

Jewish community is required for religious practice. We need 10 adults to conduct full services, we need pairs to study in chevruta, we need each other because we are a people, not only a religious group (technically a multiracial ethno-religious group). And we as Jews working in Jewish communal services are not alone. We who work with emerging adults are in a kind of leadership role in their lives, not only as community participants. Leadership is taxing and being an introvert or an extrovert really is irrelevant; leadership is taxing for everyone. Leadership is a space where we transmit cultural norms, social or technical skills, values and the ability to persist. Leaders are always “on.” Even when we do a great job of setting personal boundaries, engaging in wellness habits, and taking personal time — we are still “on.” But the ability to step out of leadership and into a community of our own is critical to the survival of leaders.

I have a friend who is a rabbi (yes, I know-we all have a friend who is a rabbi) and from time to time I remind them that when their work becomes unhealthy for their personal life, they can talk to me. One day they explained something wonderful. They have a regular once a week happy hour with the Lutheran, Buddhist, Methodist and Catholic clergy. They have created a support system, very much like my solopro women’s cohort. I began to look around my community at those who were surviving the pandemic with minimal negative impact, and I began to ask a simple question, “What are you doing to engage in wellness activities and to meet your personal needs for community?” The answers are shockingly similar. Those thriving during the pandemic are creating micro communities. Some are communities of practice, some are professional, some are ethnic, some are age or gender related, some are centered around hobbies, but all are engaged in the sacred practice of being in community.

Within my work as a solopro Hillel Director I have an amazing cohort of sisters who are doing the same work as I am, albeit differently for different places, and we have a hashtag we sometimes use on our social media pictures #SoloButNeverAlone.

I want to take a moment to remind you of what you already know, but likely need to hear one more time. Rav. Yehoshua ben Perachiah said: “Make yourself a teacher; acquire a friend; and judge every person favorably.” Pirkei Avot 1:6.

We Jews actually have it in our religious texts that we need to grow, learn, and love.

So as a Jewish mother, let me close by doing what I do best-giving advice:

Take a sweater with you;

Ask great questions;

Spend time in community and refresh yourself so you can actually benefit others in the new year. 

Atty Garfinkel is director, Hillel of Northern Nevada.

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