By: Jared Scharf  | 

Aloha Aviv: Shalom From Hawaii

The COVID-19 pandemic has left university students scattered across the country. Many students find themselves living at home, others are residing on campus, and for 36 students, Honolulu, Hawaii is the center of their college experience on the Aloha Aviv program. 

Alova Aviv is a program being held exclusively during the Spring 2021 semester for Modern Orthodox undergraduate college students who want to spend the semester abroad in Honolulu, Hawaii while taking classes online. The program is located at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Alana - Waikiki Beach and is being run in conjunction with Chabad of Hawaii, an eleven-minute walk from the program’s hotel. 

The “About Us” section on the Aloha Aviv website reads:  “Jewish college students are invited to experience all that Hawaii has to offer with Aloha Aviv! Kosher meals, Shabbat programming, minyanim, and endless adventure all while learning online. Aloha Aviv allows college students the opportunity to spend the spring semester in Honolulu, Hawaii at the beautiful, COVID-safe DoubleTree by Hilton Alana Waikiki Beach. You will connect with students from all over the country, build your network, and enjoy a vibrant Jewish community in partnership with Chabad of Hawaii.” 

The program was created and is operated by Ari Wax (SSSB ‘22) and Yonah Freiden (Columbia University ‘23). The two, along with Doni Jacob (SSSB ‘22), were staying at Freiden’s apartment in Manhattan in mid-November when they first conceived of the idea. 

“In NYC there are many different Covid restrictions, and most things to do are limited or closed. It makes it very difficult to socialize and to have an enjoyable time, especially when we’re young, so we decided that we needed to make a change,” Freiden told The Commentator. “We decided to take the status quo, transform it into something more fun and more social, and allow students our age to make the most of their time during the pandemic.”

The three had already discussed traveling to Hawaii, thought that it “logistically made sense” and decided to make it the location for their program. The three immediately began planning, making phone calls, and finally launched their website and began advertising on Dec. 8. They then traveled to Hawaii in mid-December to plan out the logistics. They advertised through Jewish news sources, such as Yeshiva World News, and through WhatsApp and Facebook, and word spread quickly. “We went to Miami about a week before the program started, and everyone knew about Aloha Aviv,” said Wax. “I’ve been in class breakout rooms, and students have said, ‘Oh, you made Aloha Aviv.’ It was shocking to witness how quickly word has spread.”

After launching their website and advertising, the program received 200 applicants, of which 145 were interviewed.“We wanted to make sure that the values of the students on the program aligned with Modern Orthodox values,” said Freiden. “We were looking for people who would add to this environment.” Additionally, Freiden and Wax spoke with many parents of prospective attendees to discuss logistics. In the end, they received 35 full-time commitments. 

While Jacob was not an operator of the program, he attended the program, and according to the other two, was “a huge help in constructing this program.”  

According to Freiden, “Ari, Doni, and I relied only on ourselves to develop the entire program. Everything was constructed by students and for students.” A week before the program began, Freiden and Wax arrived at the hotel to begin signing contracts and preparing. The staff they were working with had not seen them in person until that point and were surprised to see how young they looked, as both are 20 years old.

The program began on Jan. 25 and will run until May 11. Additionally, the program is open to taking short-term students at any point. While 36 students are attending the program in its entirety, there are 45 total students including students attending in the short-term. Students on the program come from many different universities, including, inter alia, Yeshiva University, University of Penn, Colombia, NYU, Queens, Baruch College, FIT,  Florida Atlantic University, Maryland and Touro. 

The program maintains two floors of the hotel, one for males and one for females, separated by one floor in between. Additionally, the program maintains a designated “hang-out” room in the hotel exclusively for the program. “When we came to visit, this hotel appeared to be the most fitting for the long-term and student-based nature of our program ” commented Wax. “Everything is perfect for our program’s success.” According to the website, “The Hilton Hotel Alana is located on the edge of Waikiki, within a mile of Waikiki Beach, Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, and the Ala Moana Center, and within three miles of the Waikiki Aquarium, Royal Hawaiian Center, and downtown Honolulu.” 

There are three daily minyanim, with shacharis at the local Chabad and mincha and ma’ariv after lunch and dinner, respectively. Additionally, there are learning opportunities, including chavrusas and chaburas with the Chabad rabbis and the rebbetzin. “We wanted students to have an opportunity to learn. There is a great opportunity for people to engage with their Yiddishkeit,” said Wax. On Shabbos, they eat meals at the Chabad; many secular Israelis reside in Hawaii and they hang out there on Shabbos.  

The trip includes three Glatt Kosher meals a day catered through a chef hired by Chabad. Additionally, there are weekly excursions organized by Freiden and Wax, such as hiking across mountains, swimming in the ocean, waterfall hikes, mermaid caves, shark diving, snorkeling, water park and visits to the beach. Two notable trips included a scavenger hunt with limousines and Tour Surfbust, a party bus with different stops for waterfall and local fruits. In addition to the weekly excursions which take place on Sunday, participants are offered optional daily trips for those who have a lighter class load. “The amount of hikes in Hawaii exceeds the amount of restaurants in NY, it seems,” commented Freiden. Because of the time difference between Hawaii and New York (five or six hours behind), classes begin very early for students on the program, therefore enabling a longer day and a larger vacuum for activities. 

Hannah Gabay (SCW ‘21), a participant in the program, told The Commentator about her experience on the program. “I signed up for the program not knowing anyone and I have to say that the people on the program are incredible! Everyone came with the same mindset- just looking to have an amazing time! The directors, Ari and Yonah, take care of everything for you. You let them know you want to come, book your flight and the rest is taken care of,” she expressed. “Everyone wakes up early to attend zoom classes and then the rest of the day is spent exploring the island. There is always a hike, beach day or excursion planned by the students which never leaves a dull moment! Some of the most memorable things I have done in Hawaii are shark diving, hiking Maunawili Falls and swimming in the Makapu’u Tidepools. I couldn’t have envisioned a better way to spend my last semester at Stern.”

For Pesach, about half the students are returning home, while half will remain in Hawaii and participate in a seder with the Chabad’s Pesach program. In order to enter Hawaii, one must test negative from a diagnostic test within 72 hours of arrival. Masks are mandatory; additionally, in the beginning of the program, the State of Hawaii mandated five students in separate groups, but that number has currently been raised to 10. “We want students to have a great time and abide by the regulations,” said Freiden. There is a colossal gap between the number of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii and NY. As of March 16, the former has had 28,357 total cases, while the latter has had a total of 1.76 million cases. Aloha Aviv only tests people who are displaying symptoms or who may have been in contact with someone with COVID-19; so far there have been zero reported cases on the program. 

The program costs $9,750.00, or a monthly rate of $2,760.00. Financial aid is available as well. Wax and Freiden intend to use the money earned from the program for future business ventures of similar nature. “This is just the beginning, and under this programming umbrella, Ari and I hope to pursue other things in the future,” commented Freiden. “There are some people who wanted to take over and still operate next semester.” Wax added that “we were asked if we were interested in selling Aloha Aviv, and we are not. We want to operate further. There is more stuff coming.” 

“Seeing this progress from an idea to a successful program has been amazing,” reflected Wax. “We are now able to socialize and have a great time while abiding by all the restrictions that exist in Hawaii.” Wax added: “As some of the only religious Jews on the island, we want to make sure that we are a Kiddush Hashem.”


Photo Caption: Aloha Aviv is giving students the chance to spend their spring semester in Hawaii.

Photo Credit: Pixabay