It’s not a new marketing strategy, but still it’s an effective one. If your customer can’t come to you, take your show on the road!
So far, Rutgers Hillel is getting good mileage out of that policy.
“We recognized that with most classes being virtual, most students would be remaining home,” Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director for Jewish Campus Life at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick, said. She has worked with the group since 2001. “Labs and art are in person, but only a small number of students are living on or near campus.”
So, with all that Hillel has to offer, and with so many students spread all over the state, “we wanted to bring it to them,” Rabbi Reed said. “We thought the best way would be to set up tents in public parks throughout the state and use this as an opportunity to meet students we’ve never met and reconnect with others.” In addition to targeting incoming students and greeting familiar faces, “We also have returning students who have never connected with us.”
The group, which has dubbed its Tuesday outings “roadshows,” has run one in New Brunswick, one in West Orange, and a third in Lincroft. Two more are planned for later in September, one in Cherry Hill on September 22 and one in Bergenfield on September 29.
“We handed out T-shirts, Rutgers Hillel’s custom face masks, free snacks, and information about Hillel events for this semester,” Rabbi Reed said, describing the meetings that already have been held and laying out the game plan for the ones to come. “We insisted that everyone be masked. There were lots of activities, games to play — including ring toss and cornhole, or baggo — an arts table, and a table announcing virtual events and activities.
“There was also a table for Israel engagement, information about Birthright, and grab-and-go Israeli snacks, individually wrapped.”
Reservations were not required, and Rabbi Reed said that she expected about 30 students to turn up for each event. “But Middlesex County included many Rutgers students on or near the campus, so we had more than 100,” she added. So far, the feedback has been extremely positive.
“Students in West Orange were so grateful,” she said. “They said thanks so much for coming to where we are, so we can be with other students and not see them only through a screen.”
Rabbi Reed noted that the pandemic quarantine began right around Purim, forcing Hillel to cancel its laser tag Purim party. “After that, we would have had Passover and a huge celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut,” she said. “And we always have a big, large-scale Shabbat dinner, with between 200 and 400 students, every week. At the end of the year, we do a large celebratory banquet for student leaders.” It’s hard to do that virtually.
While Hillel offered a virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service during the semester, Rabbi Reed happily reported that the university’s Conservative and Orthodox students “kept up their virtual pre-Shabbat service every Friday during the whole summer. Even though the students were home, they wanted to connect.
“Services, like other Hillel events, are student-run,” she said. She is a Conservative rabbi; she’s logged in for the services, but “the students lead and give the divrei Torah.” She spoke highly of their skills and commitment. “We know that 50 percent of them remain in New Jersey and become the future leaders of synagogues and Jewish organizations.”
Thinking back on what Hillel did to replace the major events canceled during the quarantine, she recalled that Hillel ran an education program during the week leading up to Passover and posted material on how to host a virtual seder, downloadable haggadot, “and all sorts of different links so they could choose what would be best for them.” Right now, she added, there are enough students to hold two daily Orthodox minyanim, one in the morning and one in the evening.
Hillel has been providing Shabbat-to-go boxes for students who live off campus in the New Brunswick area. “They would have come to us to eat,” Rabbi Reed said, but because the pandemic has made in-person gathering impossible, “now we distribute boxes, including tea lights, mini bottles of grape juice, challah rolls, and the actual meal.” And that’s not all. Aside from virtual education activities, “there are events every day.
“Community service is done virtually by students who did hospital visits, distributing cards and flowers. Now they’re meeting over Zoom to do the card-making at home.” They send the cards to Hillel, which distributes them.
And what has Rabbi Reed learned from the unique situation in which Hillel now finds itself? “Being home all the time is lonely,” she said. “Any way we can foster community helps both mental health and one’s sense of well-being.” She noted that a member of Rutgers’ counseling and psychological services works with Hillel, and “has done a tremendous amount of counseling. There’s a great need for it.”
The greatest challenge for Hillel, she continued, “is not being able to be with the students in person.” Before, “students would walk by every day and we could see them and say ‘hi.’ It’s hard to catch them when they’re home.”
For more information about the roadshows, go to Hillel’s website, RutgersHillel.org. The Bergenfield meeting will be at Memorial Park on Tuesday, September 29, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.