By Dr. Donald A. Sylvan and
In the September 2 issue of eJewish Philanthropy, Alina Dain Sharon discussed her observations about what campuses in the US will face as the academic year begins. Our challenges on campuses here in Canada are similar, but not identical, and our approach is a bit different.
In the wake of this summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict, and the resulting media coverage which, in many instances, demonized the Jewish state, students returning to our university campuses this month are likely to face a myriad of new challenges, with a number of questions and concerns ranging from;
- “I see dead children in Gaza on the television, and the announcer is saying they were killed by Israel. I don’t know what to think.” to
- “I see photos of demonstrators with signs that say ‘kill Jews.’ I’m scared.”
Throughout this academic year, those of us responsible for creating the annual August Hillel Canada Professional Development Days agenda interacted with our campus professionals to figure out what topics and approaches would be most helpful. Then, in July the Israel-Hamas confrontation began, with all its residual impact in our Jewish community. The phrase “Man plans; G_d laughs” came to mind. We tossed out almost that entire plan and created a new one, understanding that dealing with such student questions as the ones above needs to be our primary concern.
In other words, advising our professionals on how to create a “safe space” for Jewish students on each campus became the centerpiece of our primary PD Day. We ran a number of sessions on how to make every Jewish student welcome at Hillel and how to deal with the anxiety and questions they are likely to have in this trying time. With over 50 professionals from across Canada attending the session on August 19, lively discussions ensued as our Hillel Directors and staff grappled with these difficult, crucial issues. Equally importantly, our Hillel professionals spent the next day in a workshop on advocacy, run by our colleagues form the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Both Hillels and CIJA receive virtually all of our funding from the Canadian Federation movement, and we cooperate operationally on a daily basis.
On both our “safe space” Hillel training day and our advocacy CIJA training day, we worked through real cases that have occurred at our universities in thoughtful, insightful discussions. Presenters and participants included our colleagues from virtually every Hillel in Canada. Topics varied from “How to deal with our students’ conflicting and conflicted emotions” to “Ensuring our campuses remain our ‘homes’” and “Strained relationships: campus groups, friends, professors.” The rich array of experiences that were shared allowed us to be better prepared for whatever we face when school starts again.
So, back to those initial questions: Our central advice was to legitimize the concerns of each of these students. Talk through the issues underlying those statements, without being judgmental. Our role is to comfort, educate, and prepare our students, not to criticize of judge them. Inside the walls of our Hillels, this discourse is crucial.
After day one had concentrated on creating and maintaining a welcoming environment and emotional security, physical security and training students to advocate for Israel were key emphases on day 2, run by our CIJA colleagues. Plans are in the works to train students in many of our Hillels to be more effective advocates for Israel in the emotional and likely hostile campus climate that we may well face. As on the previous day, participants discussed scenarios we will likely face and talked through possible responses.
We can’t wait to get back to concentrating on the three pillars of our Hillels:
- Jewish student engagement;
- working with each of our Jewish students to provide opportunities for them to build on their Jewish knowledge and interests
- to aid their growth, along a path suited for them, and
- helping each student strengthen their relationship with, and knowledge about Israel; and provide opportunities for a thorough Israel education, especially for those who choose to pursue a course of Israel advocacy.
At the moment, though, based on what we have experienced during our PD days, we are confident that all of our Hillel professionals are better prepared for a hostile campus environment, if it does occur. They now have a thorough understanding of the means and resources available to create a haven for our Jewish students that is welcoming, nurturing, aware, and empathetic of what they may be facing when they exit the Hillel surroundings to traverse the rest of campus. And, with our partners at CIJA, we are prepared to work with our students to effectively advocate for Israel.
Dr. Donald A. Sylvan is Executive Director, Hillel Ontario and Daniel Fine is National Director, Hillel Canada.