The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday June 3rd

'Re-establish what we had': UNC religious groups connect with students despite COVID-19

UNC Hillel celebrates a recent Shabbat celebration conducted via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Michelle Brownstein Horowitz.
Buy Photos UNC Hillel celebrates a recent Shabbat celebration conducted via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Michelle Brownstein Horowitz.

Students and student-let religious organizations on campus are finding unique ways to stay connected with each other while maintaining social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With Passover, Ramadan and Easter coming up, these groups around campus are finding ways to connect on a regular basis, as well as commemorate major religious holidays.  

Staying connected

Michelle Brownstein Horowitz, campus director for UNC Hillel, said community members of UNC Hillel have had to make adjustments in response to the current pandemic. Horowitz said UNC Hillel has continued to reach out to community members who have been involved with Hillel during the past two years via email, text or Facebook. 

She said the center has also continued to provide resources via newsletters and social media for wellness centers on-campus and in the greater Jewish community.

“I’m proud of the way we’ve pivoted,” Horowitz said. “It is important that everyone knows they are seen and that we can help.”

She said the chef at UNC Hillel has prepared matzo ball soup to be delivered to community members within the Triangle. It’s important to maintain some form of non-virtual connection while still abiding by current social distancing protocols, she said. 

The Newman Catholic Student Center at UNC has also modified its activities to be primarily virtual. 

Andrés Otero, a sophomore majoring in public policy, said Newman livestreams mass via Facebook on Sundays at 11 a.m. and has continued weekly student faith group meetings over Zoom.

“Every Wednesday during the normal year, we have a Carolina Catholic night where we do prayer and worship, listen to speakers and do dinner together,” Otero said. “We’re now doing that through Zoom." 

He said the Catholic center has created a new program called Newman Coffee House every Thursday, where students can log onto Zoom to chat.

“I think it’s a really crucial addition right now because it gives people an opportunity to log on and see their friends,” Otero said.

Students involved in Summit College at UNC have also pursued ways to virtually stay in touch with one another. 

Michael James, II, a sophomore majoring in economics and statistics and analytics, is a member of Summit. He said he has adjusted to virtual meetings with his fellow group members.

“The thing I miss most is actually meeting with my friends in Summit and my small groups, but we’re able to talk pretty frequently,” James said.

Rawan Abbasi, a junior majoring in public policy, is the publicity chair for UNC’s Muslim Student Association. 

She said UNC MSA has tried to stay connected with its members remotely via Instagram and TikTok videos. She also said UNC MSA has coordinated with local mosques and MSAs from other schools like North Carolina State University to deliver webinars via Zoom.

“We want to try to lift people’s spirits and get them involved and to re-establish what we had when we left,” Abbasi said.

Celebrating religious holidays

With Passover beginning Wednesday evening, Horowitz said UNC Hillel plans to host various segments of the Seder on YouTube for people to attend remotely Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Other activities planned for the rest of the eight-day celebration will be featured via Zoom and/or Instagram, including a matzo pizza baking program and a trivia night inspired by the afikomen tradition of the Seder.

In addition to the Passover celebration, Horowitz said UNC Hillel is encouraging community members to send videos of themselves reading aloud the names of lives lost during Holocaust to recreate their reading-of-the-names ceremony, which is annually hosted in the Pit.

To celebrate Easter, Otero said he will likely livestream mass with his mother on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

James also said his family is having to adjust its Easter celebrations this year. 

“Usually what we do is go to Easter service, then come home and make a meal or go out to eat,” he said. “This year, we will probably watch the live sermon and eat at the house.”

The month-long observation of Ramadan will begin toward the end of this month. 

Abbasi said UNC MSA has discussed the possibilities of having members showcase their traditions online and through social media while maintaining social distancing. She said it’s important to remain connected and strengthen their faith. 

“I think it’s been great seeing collaboration among other MSAs and local mosques to keep our members involved,” Abbasi said. “It’s not just about community engagement — it’s also about trying to fulfill everyone’s religious interests.”

Despite changes many students have had to adjust to, many say that their faith has helped them throughout the pandemic. 

“In an uncertain time where we don’t know what’s going on, there’s no better bedrock than our faith,” Otero said. “This is a very important time for different religious groups to band together, and our faith organizations have been a positive place for us to look to.”

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