Written By: Amanda Almonord
For the past 20 years, Tanger Hillel has hosted their annual “Thanksgiving Day Dinner for the Homeless” in the building just outside Brooklyn College’s main campus.
Over200 attendees and 180 volunteers had the opportunity to interact and dine with one another intimately. But this year, COVID-19 forced the organization to change its plans.
“This year, because of COVID restrictions and with the height of the pandemic going up and down, we can’t really gather,” said Yelena Azriyel, the Director of Jewish Student Life and Community Affairs at Tanger Hillel. “We still wanted to give back…so we decided to team up with local food banks.”
For students at the Hillel, organizing the Thanksgiving drive was something of a return to normalcy for them, working to do something they were used to doing under normal circumstances.
“We all wanted to have some semblance of what we do,” said Sarali Cohen, a student leader at Tanger Hillel, “The Thanksgiving dinner is a big highlight of what it is we do at the Hillel and a lot of us miss being on campus and the events that we do,” she said.
Volunteering is more important to Cohen now than ever. “COVID has really hit people really hard,” she said. Earlier during the pandemic, she participated in smaller volunteering activities with Tanger Hillel and outside it. She’s volunteered at her local senior center, worked in a soup kitchen, and volunteered at her father’s synagogue. “Start at home, you start in your community, and you go out from there until you reach everybody. Helping others during this time will help one feel better themselves,” she said.
The organization took over Met Council’s warehouse the day before Thanksgiving to package food for people in need, including homebound seniors. To prevent the spread of the virus, student volunteers worked in shifts and protected themselves with gloves and masks. Food delivery was handled by local taxi services and the food bank’s partnership with Uber.
With the pandemic taking its toll on everyone, students and faculty alike, the freedom to get out and give back is not lost for Cohen. “I love having the option to volunteer…anything just to come and give back,” she said. “I think that we as people get so wrapped up in our day to day lives…we really have to take a step back and appreciate what it is we really have.”
While their annual Thanksgiving dinner event is the highlight of the year, Tanger Hillel provides many other volunteering opportunities throughout the semester. Recently, they’ve hosted their first annual coat drive, since most BC student clubs were unable to host their own in person. “A bunch of student clubs have tried to organize a coat drive, but because the school doesn’t allow in-person events, they didn’t get approved,” said Azriyel, “but because Hillel is not part of the school, we’re able to.” The donated coats will go to Atlantic Armory and Urban Strategies, a non-profit Brooklyn based agency that runs homeless shelters.
Tanger Hillel’s goal is to “instill great values in a person and make sure that they think beyond themselves,” Azriyel said. As intimidating as volunteering may seem, Cohen believes that students shouldn’t be afraid to give their time. “Just go out and do it…at the end of the day, they [people in need] are just people; they’re all human, and that’s all that really matters,” said Cohen.