Lunch at the Oldenborg Center, interfaith community service events, prayer services at the McAlister Center and movie nights were only a few of the events that the Chaplains of the Claremont Colleges planned before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Events ran almost every day of the week and brought over 60 students together, fostering a sense of community.
“Plans were already in place for the Passover Seder and staff had to quickly transition to provide meaningful services in a virtual environment,” Rabbi Danny Shapiro, one of the Chaplains of the Claremont Colleges, said via email.
“I got sick right around that week, and it was very hard for me personally because we had a lot of fun stuff planned for the year, for graduation and for Ramadan … I couldn’t really say goodbye,” said Adeel Zeb, another one of the Chaplains.
However, after coming to terms with their new reality, the Chaplains recognized that they needed to adapt to a virtual environment. The Chaplains and the Chaplain staff took the time to learn about various online platforms such as Zoom, Instagram TV and Facebook Live and equipment such as webcams, microphones and green screens.
“It was like cramming for an exam,” Zeb said.
The Chaplains were able to make online replacements for many of their previous events. For Muslim students, the Thursday Halaqa became a rotating online program where students could check in on their mental health, watch movies and discuss relevant Islamic topics. To substitute for the Friday Jummah, a prayer service would be pre-recorded and posted either as a Facebook Live or Instagram TV video.
For Jewish students, considerable time was spent on figuring out how to continue the weekly Shabbat programs online and creating a PowerPoint prayer book.
“So much of what the Chaplains do is about creating community over shared meals and students creating networks of friends with others who share their religion or culture,” Shapiro said via email.
The students also recognized difficulties and downsides to their online programming. Not only did socializing feel different but constantly staring at a screen became tiring.
“It’s definitely not the same, obviously … I think people are less motivated to come, so the turnout is a little bit smaller. And then other than that, there are just less things you can do,” Ibrahim Khan PO ’24 said.
Other specific challenges arose for Jewish students as certain technology cannot traditionally be used on Shabbat and during holidays.
“This has made it difficult to be inclusive of those students since they cannot be online for holidays,” said Shapiro via email.
However, Chabad, a Jewish 7C campus group, addressed this issue by organizing a hangout before Shabbat and sending care packages and resources for students to celebrate without having to use technology.
“It is this kind of ingenuity and dedication to finding meaningful ways to stay connected that will help see us through this pandemic,” Shapiro said via email.
The Chaplains have made a dedicated effort to make themselves available to international students through individual meetings and by recording important programs and events. Zeb is even setting up an international Muslim hangout on Thursdays at 4 a.m. PDT.
“If we only do programs for domestic students, that’s one year [where] students are not going to have any interaction with the colleges, the communities. It’s not right, so I felt that’s very important for us to have that availability,” Zeb said.
But there have also been many upsides to having online programming for the students.
“I think an unexpected positive might be the flexibility,” Khan said. “Because we’re all at home online and we all have our schedules exact, we were all able to coordinate with each other.”
The Chaplains have also found upsides to doing online programming, such as alumni attending.
“[The alumni] are popping in on these Thursday evening meetings as well or get togethers, which is nice. I see their faces, which I don’t think I would see them otherwise like that,” Zeb said.
The online events have also built anticipation for when students are allowed to return on campus.
“I want to be more involved in [Muslim Student Association] once I get back on campus and hold events … I think that once I get back on campus, it’ll be a lot easier and just more rewarding,” Maryam Khan SC ’23 said.
For the time being, the Chaplains are making the best of the resources they have at hand.
“I always say that my approach to chaplaincy is like Batman; I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,” Zeb said. “So say Gotham is to call, if the colleges need me to be more of someone providing social support and games and movies and hangout times, that’s what we’re going to do.”