End of year reflection

Enduring lessons from the past year

Our talent is the cornerstone of our work

It is difficult to look back on the past year without expressing truly mixed emotions. On the one hand, the struggles and hardships experienced across the globe during COVID-19 – the first pandemic in a century – have been sobering. On the other, glimmers of light, displays of resilience and kindness, and a redoubling of our collective efforts to love thy neighbor gives us hope for the brighter days that lay ahead. 

This dichotomy of experiences has characterized the past year for Hillel Ontario, our staff and student leadership, and Jewish students broadly, and have shaped three enduring lessons that I will carry with me in the months and years ahead. 

First, despite our physical distance, this year reinforced Hillel’s role in bringing Jewish students together. 

Hillel Ryerson, for example, moved forward with its annual Multifaith Shabbat. In both a plenary setting and in small groups, speakers and attendees, including President Mohamed Lachemi and Chancellor Janice Fukakusa, came together to share interfaith perspectives on the meaning of rest. Over one hundred students — Jews and non-Jews alike — attended the virtual program, with an additional fifty people joining the challah baking workshop the preceding Thursday evening. Guelph Hillel innovated the Shabbox program – a safely delivered, Friday night dinner in a box designed to create space for Jewish students to experience community and find comfort from the safety of their own residences. Amazingly, this year’s virtual Shabbox saw a 25% increase in participation over last year’s in-person program. And, at Hillel UofT, the work of supporting Jewish students run – and win – important student government positions continued remotely, with hundreds of students joining together to support the successful election of Hillel student leader, Evan Kanter to the University of Toronto’s Governing Council. 

Second, the past year underscored the importance of measuring our impact so that we can drive our programming in a direction that best meets the needs of our constituents.  

Operating on 9 campuses, and representing some 14,000 Jewish university students throughout the province of Ontario, we are now the largest Hillel in the global Jewish student movement. Over the past several years, we have invested substantial efforts to help us quantify our impact. We have worked to increase our breadth (by that, I mean, the number of Jewish students we engage at least once each year) and our depth (the degree to which those students engage with our programming on a more regular basis).

Even this year, with in-person operations suspended, students and staff forced online, and the very real challenge posed by Zoom fatigue, the data we have collected shows we continue to have much to be proud of. While a reduction in our organizational ability to fully engage Jewish students during the pandemic was difficult, we remained committed to our mandate and the students we serve. And, the dedication of our professional team and our student leaders shone through. As an organization, Hillel Ontario’s breadth and depth during this academic year as of February 2021 was nearly 90% of February 2019; and our breadth as of March 2021 was 96% of March 2019. 

And, finally, this year reinforced what we have always known to be true — that our talent is the cornerstone of our work.

Unfortunately, the pandemic necessitated painful reductions to our professional complement, which in turn negatively impacted our ability to reach the greatest number of students possible. To optimally reach and meet the needs of Jewish students, our goal is to achieve a campus-facing staff-to-student ratio of 1:300. As an organization, though, our ratio is currently more than double that number (1:783), with an even bigger gap at our two largest campuses — Western (1:1200) and York (1:1500). In total, our staffing deficit is -29 over where we ultimately ought to be. As we continue to grow and expand our impact, our ability to reinvest in talent is paramount, and is a central pillar of our forward-looking agenda. 

I joined Hillel in 2013 with the goal of improving Jewish campus life for the students of Ontario, bringing students together and empowering them to become the next generation of community leaders. Especially this year, I am so proud of our students and our professional team. Some eight years since I began at Hillel, together, we have accomplished so much. And, yet, as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, and we look towards the future, we have so much left still to do.

Marc Newburgh is Hillel Ontario’s chief executive officer.