New Initiative has Canadian Universities Embracing all things Israel

canada:israel flags

By Daniel Horowitz
With contributions from Lior Cyngiser and Eran Shafir

Imagine a university or college campus on which students, teachers and faculty alike celebrate, rather than demonize Israel or, at best, present it as one-dimensional, engaging only a handful of students.

Imagine a campus where the majority of students are having conversations about the role and intersection that Israel plays within their field of study – an environment where not only are the conversations about Israel not limited to the classroom, but are at the forefront of students’ minds, and develop in a holistic, positive manner.

Imagine Jewish faculty members enthusiastically acknowledging their respective roles in changing the campus ecosystem linking Israel engagement to their professional development.

Imagine no more.

Thanks to a cutting-edge initiative spearheaded by The Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel International, and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, those dreams are quickly coming to fruition.

Organizers of that innovative program, dubbed Israel Engaged Campus (IEC), are excited and inspired by the early results which include a growing and impactful relationship with Israel across all the components of campus, while providing a more holistic picture of today’s Israel.

Launched in May, the IEC was rolled out as a pilot project at five North American campuses so far, including two Canadian universities – Ryerson University and the University of Western Ontario, both of which serve as “testing grounds” for plans to reach out to a more diverse and broader circle of Jewish and non-Jewish students.

Hillel of Greater Toronto has hired four IEC student interns at Ryerson who are working to build relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish students in their faculties. Each intern takes on 25 students, 10 of whom will eventually be selected to participate in a monthly educational program and develop a specific initiative that connects their particular field of study to Israel, making it more accessible to a broader student audience.

In its inaugural year, the IEC has 4 student interns from 4 different faculties participating in the initiative: Social Work; Child and Youth Care; Business & Law; Graphic Communications Management. In addition, organizers have also assembled a Campus Visioning Team to advise and support the students in their respective projects. The visioning team consists of Ryerson Alumni, professors, students, community lay people, Israel Fellow and the Hillel Coordinator at Ryerson.

One of those student interns is Rebecca Katzman who is studying social work. She imagined what it would be like to spend “quality time” chatting with her fellow social work students about Israel in relation to their professional faculty.

But, for Katzman, imagining was simply not good enough.

So, with the input of her fellow social work students, Katzman created a ‘Free Restaurant’ initiative on campus, modeled after one in Israel. The goal of the concept is to provide food for those in need, while ensuring that they retain their dignity.

Before you could say be’te-avon, the university’s Credit Union Lounge was transformed into a lovely restaurant with white tablecloths and with the décor and ambiance of a high-end restaurant, allowing diners to eat with respect and enjoy a first-rate dining experience.

Included on each table were posters with information about “Dining with Dignity” as well as describing various social services available in Israel to help those in need.

And, yes, as you’d expect, the cuisine was decidedly Israeli as diners dug into a selection of kosher vegetarian delights including couscous, Israeli salad, hummus, falafel and pita.

“The Israel engaged Campus Internship will not only provide me with connections with professors from my faculty at Ryerson, but also in Israel, and it will allow me to create special connections with my peers,” explains Katzman. “Even though I will engage Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus, my ultimate goal is to engage those who do not see Israel as a contributor to the field of social work. Although this internship is not about politics, I want people who are not Jewish, or do not know much about Israel, to realize that Canada and Israel have many similarities in our beliefs and in the way they treat their citizens.”

“The Israel Engaged Campus initiative takes student engagement to the next tier,” says Lior Cyngiser, Director, Israel Engagement, Education & Advocacy, Hillel of Greater Toronto. “The IEC is engaging not only students – Jewish and non-Jewish alike, but also TAs, professors and, we hope, ultimately the entire university. We have engaged the entire Ryerson eco-system with Israel, beyond peer-to-peer engagement. By adopting the micro-communities model, the Israel Engaged Campus is unique and is successfully serving the nature of Ryerson University and is providing students with networking opportunities and growth in their profession as well as the opportunity to integrate their connection with Israel into their professional lives.”

Dan Horowitz is the Editorial Director and Senior Writer for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and has been published regularly in a number of Canadian and North American newspapers and magazines as well as Israeli news sites including YNet, JTA and The Times of Israel.