Impact Stories:

COVID-19 Relief Stories: Tahlia Altgold and Eli Sigman

“Doing Jewish” to Fight Pandemic Stress

For some The Great Kugel Debate, held in October 2020 between Pittsburgh-area college students, may have been a matter of life or death.

Research funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh shows that pandemic stress disproportionately impacts the psychological well-being of young people.1 One in five college students, in the best of times, thinks of suicide.2 The Great Kugel Debate generated a lot of laughs, but helping students avoid a mental health flash point was no laughing matter.

That’s why the Jewish Federation has provided funding not only for the “obvious” things like life-saving personal protective equipment, but also for life-saving programming and the staffing to make it happen. With more than $7 million distributed, the Federation supports those who are vulnerable not only to COVID-19 infection, but also to the mental health toll of the pandemic.

While they argued the merits of apple versus potato or noodle, perhaps some students forgot they were homesick. Maybe a kind word during a virtual program enabled some to escape pandemic stress for a short while. A Shabbat meal possibly led to resilience and resources.

Autumn 2020 virtual and socially distanced programming by The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh (JUC), which serves 2,200 students, provided Jewish connections. More important, however, these programs safeguarded mental health — all a part of “Hillel@Home,” an outreach effort made possible in part through funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Tahlia Altgold, winter 2021 Hillel JUC president, provides a student’s perspective: “It’s really easy in college to feel disconnected and drifting. Hillel is a touchstone for so many, especially freshmen. Having that little piece of Hillel makes such a big impact.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh provided funding that helped Hillel JUC to “think bigger and find creative ways to reach out to students during the pandemic,” notes student and fall 2020 Hillel JUC President Eli Sigman.

Support for Young Adults by the Numbers

A few of the many ways the Community Campaign has supported Jewish Pittsburgh through the COVID-19 crisis.

The Great Kugel Debate was one creative outreach. Others included a welcome-back Havdalah kit and an online Passover program that showed students how to prepare Matzah Brei, matzah with scrambled eggs. Hillel JUC participants tie-dyed facemasks, and Hillel JUC provided “coffee cards” to encourage in-person socially distanced visits. As days grew shorter and colder, Hillel JUC sent Chanukah socks.

Sigman’s favorite outreach was Shabbat2Go, which would not have been possible without Jewish Federation funding.

“Being able to pick up Shabbat dinner made me feel so cared for by Hillel and the Jewish community,” Altgold remembers. Sigman enjoyed seeing socially distanced students, with Shabbat2Go takeout bags, on the campus lawn and in hammocks. “Even those who ate the Shabbat2Go meal alone had a Shabbat program to log on to,” he says.

“We appreciate all the support so deeply. Even in this tumultuous time, the Jewish Federation and Hillel JUC made sure that students were able to ‘do Jewish’ in whatever way was meaningful to them.”

Eli Sigman, student and fall 2020 Hillel JUC President

In this tumultuous time, doing Jewish may have saved lives.

1Aaronson J, Boxer M, Brookner MA, Magidin de Kramer M, Saxe L. (2020). Building resilient Jewish communities: Pittsburgh key findings. Brandeis University, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

2Liu CH, Stevens C, Wong SHM, Yasui M, Chen JA. (2019). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depression & Anxiety, 36(1): 8–17.

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