How COVID Helped Us Reimagine Educational Travel

By Rachel Hillman and Shana Zionts

Like the rest of the world, our lives completely changed in the middle of March. As Hillel professionals, we pivoted to a virtual engagement strategy to reach our Columbia/Barnard and Northwestern students who were suddenly scattered around the world. Among the losses we felt, we were particularly pained to cancel our respective Alternative Spring Break trips to Poland. Each year, we bring students from Columbia/Barnard and Northwestern to Poland to learn about the history of the country from a Jewish perspective as well as to experience the vibrancy of Jewish life there today. After managing the logistics of canceled flights and resigning ourselves to spring breaks spent in lockdown, we turned to the challenges and opportunities presented by reimagining immersive travel. After intense planning this spring and a five-week virtual travel experience this summer, we have five key takeaways:

Stay true to your values: A change in plan and venue shouldn’t change the core values of the experience. Our programs have always been a spin on the “traditional” trip to Poland. Rather than using the Holocaust alone to engage with Jewish life in Poland, we’re committed to zooming out on the narrative. We enrich the picture with an understanding of pre-war Jewish history and an emphasis on the real, living Jews who continue to rebuild Polish Jewry. While the details of our virtual summer trip looked drastically different, we stayed true to our commitment to explore Jewish life in Poland in the broadest possible way.

Dont go at it alone: A pandemic is no time for professional isolation. We embraced our strong partnership with The Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland to imagine what immersive travel could look like without leaving our homes. The partnership was beneficial across the board. For the Taube Center, it was a playground to try out new ideas born out of the necessity of being a travel-based organization in a pandemic. For Hillel, we know from years of travel around the world that working with a local partner enhances the experience, and that was just as true on a virtual trip.

Know your audience: We were careful, in both planning and implementation, to not lose sight of our students’ needs. Between lost summer internships, major isolation, and a limit to the number of TV shows even a college student can binge watch, we knew that students were seeking both meaningful engagement and forgiveness and flexibility. We worked to balance content that asked for a high level of engagement with the ability to watch recorded sessions and participate in asynchronous offerings like a pre-recorded tour of the former Warsaw Ghetto. We created a WhatsApp group to stay in touch, which elevated the educational and communal experience and showed students that even when they couldn’t show up in the Zoom room, they were still a part of something meaningful.

Embrace the perks: It’s easy these days to focus on all the ways digital engagement is good but not quite perfect, but we are wise to remember that “normal” immersive travel isn’t perfect either. Some of the downsides of “real” travel wouldn’t be factors on our trip. Beyond the fact that we didn’t have to deal with jetlag or lost luggage, we were excited about the opportunities presented to us when geography wasn’t a factor. Our in-person trips could never include a visit to the Yeshiva of Lublin, certainly one of the most important sites in Poland’s rich Jewish history. Our virtual trip not only brought us to the yeshiva for a presentation of its history, but also allowed us to introduce and engage in the practice of daf yomi, which was created at the Lublin Yeshiva.

Know your limits: Just because you can do most things virtually, doesn’t mean you should. We didn’t include a tour of death camps on our itinerary, something we believe one can only grapple with by physically being there. On the other side of the spectrum, there was no night at a trendy bar with Hillel Warsaw students. This too, in an entirely different way, is an in-person experience that simply can’t be replicated online. We regularly reminded students that they will have a chance to go “back” to Poland, reinforcing that even the very best virtual experience has limits.

In February, if we had told our students we were taking a virtual trip to Poland, they would’ve refused to join. Five months later, students embraced this opportunity. While we can’t wait until the day when we can grab our passports and travel with our students again, we also recognize the financial resources that international travel requires of Jewish organizations and individuals, and that travel can be a barrier for individuals with health and accessibility needs. We hope that even post-pandemic, we can carry these lessons forward in creating Jewish educational and engagement opportunities that are accessible to everyone. We would never want virtual tourism to replace in-person educational travel, but having learned these lessons this summer, we feel better equipped and committed to creating new, creative ways to show students the Jewish world, even from home.

Rachel Hillman is Assistant Director of Northwestern Hillel. Shana Zionts is Assistant Director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.