Covid-19 and the national restrictions that were put in place to limit the spread of the virus, have put a strain on all religions and religious practices. I saw this first hand in my work at a Jewish student centre in Northern England.  This centre is an orthodox Jewish movement and organisation that performs student outreach and educational activities through a network of Jewish student centres on campuses. The centre’s strength and ability to continue operating and building relationships with students throughout the pandemic drew me to explore this as part of my studies. My research explores the impact Covid-19 has had on this centre and how the new adaptations to events and rituals impacted the Jewish students who attend. Did it hinder community building or deepen student’s relationship with their Judaism during Covid-19?
Many faith communities have moved their activities online; Jewish communities also moved online or extended their existing online presence. However, Jewish orthodox communities cannot deliver online services on the Sabbath (known as Shabbat) and Holy days for religious reasons. For instance, electrical appliances must not be operated at these times. The Jewish student centre provided good examples of the kinds of innovation within Orthodox communities. They showed that communal activities do not always need to rely on digital mechanisms, and a sense of community can be fostered in other ways.
Shabbat in the “Old Normal”
Before I outline exactly how the pandemic impacted on this Orthodox community, let me explain a bit more about Shabbat and what it meant in the “old normal”.
The Torah explains that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested which established the Shabbat day. In the Ten Commandments and elsewhere the Jewish people became obliged to keep and honour Shabbat by refraining from all creative work from sunset on Friday to sunset every Saturday. This includes using electrical items, spending money, doing housework and many other normal weekday activities. Shabbat is the core celebration in Jewish life; A famous poet once said that “Shabbat kept Jews, individually and collectively, unified and strong - connected to God and each other.”
A typical Friday night would involve family and friends with prayers over wine and bread followed by a festive meal and singing. The atmosphere is relaxed and happy.
Shabbat morning is spent in a synagogue service followed by a kiddush, which is a social event with drinks and snacks. Afterwards there will be a festive lunch and afternoons of walking, visiting and resting.
As stated above, Shabbat is the core celebration in Jewish life. Prior to Covid-19, there were multiple religious services that were conducted for students to participate in. There were Synagogue services on Friday night, Saturday morning and afternoon, as well as a kiddush (refreshments and socializing after worship). Every Friday night, students were welcomed to the centre for a sit-down festive meal with lots of singing and socializing. Friday nights were always very popular and full, there was often last-minute overflow arrangements required frequently (usually 120+ students). This event was publicised on Facebook every week and there was an indication of numbers through likes.
Under Lockdown – the impact of Covid-19
Of course, under Covid-19, it was impossible to keep these ‘normal’ practices. Instead, the centre had to find other ways of engaging with their community and help students to still observe Shabbat. Reflecting on the first phase of lockdown, a representative shared with me a sense of determination to find some way through to students: “Covid-19 won’t make us give up. It has just made us think outside of the box and think differently”. This determination was shown through their weekly distribution of Shabbat packs to all Jewish students in preparation for Friday night. The aim of the packs is to help and encourage students to continue celebrating Shabbat, as well as provide students with a sense of community each week. Packs comprised candles, grape juice, challah (bread), soup, main course, dessert, songs and prayers (see pictures below). A Google Forms booking system was posted on Facebook (see picture below) and students had the option to choose between a meat, vegetarian or vegan meal. Approximately 100+ sign up each week.
Obviously, Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact. However, the Jewish student centre explain the importance of being connected to students now more than ever before, and their aim is to maintain and grow relationships through Covid-19. Although Covid-19 has brought disadvantages, difficulties and struggles, the representative managed to find some advantages too, such as “giving students the chance to make Judaism more their own”, and “providing students with the Shabbat packs, makes them feel empowered”. They also felt that Covid-19 has increased the amount students are thinking about other students. Students are getting involved more frequently, “they are giving rather than just taking” and this is shown through weekly volunteering of preparing Shabbat packs and delivering packs to students in isolation.
I reached out to a Jewish student Facebook group whose members include past and present students. The members who are currently at University completed the questionnaire about their experience. I received 40 responses, which allows us to examine whether individuals reflected differently to a common set of events, as well as understand more about their community on campus.
Around 90% of students expressed positive emotions towards the Jewish student centre and said that they felt part of the community. Prior to Covid-19 most students participated with the centre every week or multiple times a week. However, during Covid-19 89% of students explained that their practice and participation had been affected in some way. Around 50% of students felt their religious involvement decreased because communal events, socials, and hosted dinners reduced which led directly to a decrease in their sense of community. However, the other 50% of students indicated that their religious involvement had either stayed the same or increased and this involvement helped with their stress levels. For example, the weekly occurrence of Shabbat impacted positively on students and many explained that this regular celebration had “increased [their] sense of community”. Another respondent also noted that Friday nights allowed time “to get out of your own daily stresses and focus on spending time with friends”.
Over 70% of students said that they appreciated the Shabbat packs and mentioned that the packs provided an “inclusive experience”, created a “special energy”. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that students were observing Shabbat separately, they felt the packs allowed “tradition and sense of community to be maintained despite being apart” and overall gave them the opportunity to continue celebrating Shabbat during the Covid-19 period. One of the respondents said they “...wouldn’t have done Shabbat properly had it not been for the Jewish student centre’s efforts in providing packs”. Whether Shabbat was celebrated together or apart, experiences were still shared within the community through the use of these packs. One responded even said that it deepened their faith - said that making and hosting their own Friday night dinner “strengthened the quality of Shabbat” and another respondent feels that Shabbat is now “more special” to them.
These shared experiences can strengthen, unify, and connect the community. Through adapting and continuing their observances, the centre allowed students to create a set of shared experiences and memories, which helped students create feelings of togetherness.
The Jewish student centre has become stronger, student engagement has increased, and students’ relationships with their Judaism has become more personal. More students are volunteering to help at the Jewish student centre and are now hosting their own weekly Friday night dinners. The student centre’s material and practical approach to community building allowed students to take ownership of ritual and deepen their sense of community and their faith. We wait to see how this impacts on its communal life in the future.
 Dosick, W. (1995). Living Judaism: The complete guide to Jewish belief, tradition, and practice. New York: HaperCollins, 130.