For Jewish students at the University of Guelph, this school year has marked the first time they’ve had their own campus rabbi, thanks to a new partnership between Hillel Canada and the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt was hired as Guelph Hillel’s new director for the 2012-13 academic year, in addition to serving as the university’s campus rabbi as part of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) initiative.
This dual role is an experimental project between the two organizations, as Rabbi Levitt’s is the first JLIC rabbi to also serve as a Hillel director on a university campus, he said.
“It’s never happened before,” Rabbi Levitt said. “I have responsibilities in building religious life and educational programming on campus, in addition to the social cultural stuff that was already going on.”
Rabbi Levitt, along with his wife Naomi and their two children, came to Guelph after spending two years in Nashville, Tenn., where he served as an assistant rabbi at a synagogue and campus rabbi for Vanderbilt University.
The OU typically sends rabbinic couples to campuses where there are large Orthodox populations to work alongside Hillel, Rabbi Levitt said.
While this isn’t the case at Guelph, the growing Jewish population at the university presented the need for some sort of religious programming.
Hillel says it has 450 students on its mailing list, but it estimates that the number of Jewish students on campus could be more than double that number. Guelph has about 22,000 students in total.
“From Hillel Canada’s perspective, by partnering with the OU they can bring a more experienced, higher-calibre Jewish professional… to be able to provide, all under one salary, more Jewish content, which is something that students are interested in,” Rabbi Levitt said.
“We wanted someone who is a little more knowledgeable both in dealing with people and Jewish matters,” said Rabbi Aaron Greenberg, JLIC director with Hillel of Greater Toronto, who was involved in the hiring process.
“Having that title does allow you to do certain things,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “It gives you a lot of opportunity and a sense of respect on campus.”
Choosing a JLIC couple also provides a female presence on campus, which can help Hillel better connect with female students, Rabbi Greenberg said.
While very few students at the university come from Orthodox backgrounds, Rabbi Greenberg said this isn’t a problem for Rabbi Levitt in connecting with students on a personal level.
“What’s great about Rabbi Daniel is he’s not saying ‘I’m a rabbi. I’m holier than you are.’ He has [students] over for football, he hangs out with them and they really see him as a tremendous role model and someone who’s very relatable.”
In addition to monthly Shabbat dinners at the Hillel House, which have been offered in past years, Rabbi Levitt and his wife have opened their own home to students for Friday night and Saturday lunch meals.
“Many students have talked about how that was something they felt was missing,” said Rabbi Levitt, who says he has also started hosting discussions over lunch on Jewish ethics and Torah throughout the week.
“Some of them didn’t realize they felt it was missing until it was open to them.”
In addition to Hillel, this is also the first year Chabad on Campus has had a presence at Guelph, and the two organizations say they plan to collaborate with one another in the future.
“We’re discussing right now making a big Chanukah program together on campus,” said Chabad Guelph co-director Rabbi Yehoshua Chanowitz, who moved into the new Chabad House less than three weeks ago with his wife Nechama and their family.
“Part of the need was the fact that there were so many more students coming here every single year, and many students were asking for a Chabad Centre to service their Jewish needs,” he said.
Daniel Troster, a first-year Hillel representative, said that while he was initially hesitant about coming to Guelph, after hearing the city has a small Jewish community, he is very pleased with all the new resources available for Jewish students on campus.
“When I heard about Guelph Hillel and I heard about their philosophy and what they do, it really helped my decision to come to Guelph,” Troster said.
“I feel like there’s a lot of Jewish students who don’t choose this university, because they feel that there’s not enough Jewish people. Hopefully Jewish life on campus will increase. We’ve definitely had a greater turnout this year than in past years, but we definitely want to increase that.”