Remaining Connected and Optimistic During Challenging Times

By Aliya Smelkinson, Towson University Senior 

Most days it feels like life is on pause, like things will resume one day and it will be as if time has stopped. It takes a milestone, event or holiday to remind me that we won’t get this time back, and we need to make the most of what we have.  

My heart sinks a little bit when I think about the abundance of Shana Tova wishes that will come in the form of a phone call or text this year instead of a warm embrace at shul. Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, and FaceTime are not ideal platforms for relationship building, and as a community-oriented individual, I am constantly struggling with the fact that the experiences I should have had during my senior year in college are not going to happen as I had planned.  

The spring brought virtual classes from my childhood bedroom… religious school lessons that I taught from that same bedroom… an internship too.  

I no longer had a commute downtown for my internship or to Pikesville for religious school, but I had enough consistency to find the substance of my day familiar. The summer, however, brought the sad reality that going to camp would not be an option. So, instead of spending my summer at Camp Louise as a Unit Leader, I had to find some new ways to make the most of my time.  

While nothing could compare to a summer spent at camp, I was able to spend my summer in a productive and meaningful way. I attended NewCAJE, a Jewish education conference that took place virtually over the month of July in which I was a part of the College Fellowship.  

After NewCAJE, I participated in the Jewish Changemakers fellowship through JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America), a three week fellowship focused on professional development and leadership. Both Changemakers and NewCAJE were a perfect fit for me; I had the opportunity to learn from individuals with experience and expertise in their fields, and connect with others in a similar situation as me.  

I am a relationship builder, a connector and value-driven person. I crave opportunities to be with my community; opportunities to put my values into action. It has been challenging to feel as connected during these past many months, but these cohorts gave me some sense of community, an outlet for learning and growth from the safety of my home, and ways to make this summer as productive and meaningful as possible.  

I am always looking for opportunities to connect with others and build community. However, in the past few months, my desire to connect  was second to keeping those around me safe. My combined love for community and strong desire to do my part in keeping our community safe was a driving factor in deciding to join the Towson Hillel Reopening Task Force.   

The task force is made up of Towson Hillel staff members, board members and one other student leader. Our discussions have focused on the many precautions we need to consider as outlined by the university, The Associated and Hillel International; if and how we can open our spaces; ways to engage students virtually; and possible outcomes of holding events in person.  

The commitment of our staff and lay leaders has been inspiring; these individuals are so dedicated to enriching the lives of Jewish students and providing opportunities for students to build community.  

I remain optimistic that this semester will bring innovative opportunities, exciting and new ways to connect with friends, and challenging classes, even though I have chosen not to return to campus for the time being.  

So, for now, texts like, “there’s a seat next to me!” and “I’m watching services with you!” are here to stay for a while longer. Volunteering on camp calls, cousin Zoom calls, trying lots of new recipes, and having the time to read every day have been fun, but I am looking forward to spending holidays with my extended family, Shabbat dinners with my friends, and being back in a classroom.   

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