Hillels prepare for questions on Gaza

Hillels prepare for questions on Gaza
Donald A. Sylvan, Special to The CJN, Tuesday, September 2, 2014
- See more at: http://www.cjnews.com/canada/hillels-prepare-questions-gaza#sthash.3xYfWhMQ.dpuf

In the wake of this summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict and the resulting media coverage, students returning to Ontario university campuses this month will are likely to face myriad of new challenges. Some of the concerns we at Hillel Canada expect to face are questions like, “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.” Or, “I see photos of demonstrators with signs that say, ‘kill Jews.’ I’m scared.”

Advising our professionals on how to create a “safe space” for Jewish students on each campus was the centerpiece of our annual August professional development (PD) days. 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 students are likely to face in this trying time. With more than 50 professionals from across Canada attending the session on Aug. 19, lively discussions ensued as our Hillel directors and staff grappled with these difficult, crucial issues.

We worked through real cases that have occurred at our universities in thoughtful, insightful discussions. Presenters and participants included all of our professionally staffed Hillels in Ontario – universities of Toronto, Western, York, Queens, McMaster, Ryerson, Guelph, Waterloo, Laurier and Ottawa – as well as our colleagues from virtually every Hillel in Canada. The rich array of experiences that were shared allowed us to be better prepared for whatever we face when school starts again.

Our central advice was to legitimize the concerns of every student – to talk through the underlying issues without being judgmental. We believe our role is to comfort, educate and prepare our students – not to criticize or judge them. Within the walls of our Hillels, this discourse is crucial.

Looking around the room at our Hillel professionals during our PD days, I was proud to be part of the group. We have dedicated, talented individuals, many of them in their 30s, determined to engage with all our Jewish students and aid their Jewish journeys.

We recognize that, at this moment, our major task is to create a safe space, and we know that our determination and talent will be tested. That said, I am confident we will succeed in this task, despite the obstacles we are likely to face on many of our campuses.

Canadian Jews should be proud of the funding we give to this effort. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto expends over $1.1 million to support the Hillels in Ontario, which consists of approximately 70 per cent of our 35,000 Jewish students in Canada. Both our Ontario Hillel professionals and their colleagues throughout Canada are worth the investment – and more. Our students are the beneficiaries.

Looking ahead, plans are in the works to train students in both Toronto and at the other Hillels in Ontario to be more effective advocates for Israel in the emotional and even hostile campus climate that we may well face.

At the moment, though, I am confident that all of our Hillel professionals are better prepared for a hostile campus environment, if it does indeed 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 at the same time, we are excited 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, and helping each student strengthen their relationship with, and knowledge about, Israel. We look forward to providing opportunities for a thorough Israel education, especially for those students who choose to pursue a course of Israel advocacy.

Donald A. Sylvan is executive director for Hillel Ontario.
- See more at: http://www.cjnews.com/canada/hillels-prepare-questions-gaza#sthash.3xYfWhMQ.dpuf


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