Through the 18 years that Zac Kaye has been the head of Hillel of Greater Toronto, he’s worked to shape the organization into one that offers something to every Jewish student.
It’s not about the idea of, “If you build it, they will come,” he said. That’s the wrong attitude. Groups like Hillel need to figure out what students are interested in, and show them that doing Jewish on campus can be a part of that interest, too.
At the end of June, Kaye will retire from his position as executive director. He was honoured at a tribute dinner last month.
Looking back on his years of service, Kaye has countless success stories – students who became staff and students and staff who moved on to find meaning in other aspects of Jewish community life. It’s these kinds of stories that mark Kaye’s legacy as executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto.
“My tombstone should say… ‘He tried,’” Kaye said. He tried to make a difference, and to influence people to look at themselves, reflect on their own Jewish identity and act on it.
When Kaye first arrived in Toronto in 1995, it was a freezing cold, miserable weekend, he recalled. Hillel existed at both the University of Toronto and York University, but there was virtually no real connection between the two, let alone Jewish groups at smaller Toronto campuses.
These days, that has all changed. Hillel has its own building, the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life in the heart of U of T’s downtown campus and serves that school, as well as York, Ryerson University, Seneca College, Humber College and George Brown College.
Most of the students starting university next year were just being born when Kaye arrived. Having spent so many years in Toronto, he’s watched as campus life has slowly shifted and evolved, though he said there haven’t been too many sweeping changes.
Once of the biggest changes from the early days is the background of incoming students. It used to be that Jewish high school students, including public and private school kids, would almost definitely attend schools in Toronto, he said. Nowadays, though, Hillel can’t count on getting an influx of students from Jewish private schools each year, he said. Instead, many choose out-of-town schools, such as the University of Guelph or Wilfred Laurier University.
Hillel, therefore, has to focus more on engaging students on campus, some of whom may have come from cities outside of Toronto, though Kaye insisted there’s no shortage of
Jewish students attending city universities and colleges.
The program that had the biggest impact on young Jews is Birthright Israel, which brings young adults to Israel for a free guided tour, he said. Birthright made it possible to connect with Jews who otherwise may have had very little to do with Jewish life, he said. The trip allows these people to strengthen their Jewish identity and form a bond with Israel, Kaye said, and “Israel always has been and will be essential to the mission of Hillel.”
Many people have written about the current state of Jewish campus life in Toronto. Hillel, as well as other campus groups, have been opposing the Israeli Apartheid Week events that have grown steadily in the past years, as well as the campaigns to have student unions endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
However, Kaye called these anti-Israel activities overhyped, and he said many in the Jewish community have overreacted to them. It’s a small albeit vocal group of people pushing these anti-Israel campaigns, he said, adding that most of the time, when a union endorses BDS, it’s because of a secretive campaign that uses student apathy to student government as its gain.
The best way to stop these groups, he said, is to marginalize them and minimize their arguments, and to try to stop people from isolating Israel. To that end, he’s built connections with other student groups and with the university administration. The fact that three university presidents, Sheldon Levy from Ryerson University, David Naylor from the University of Toronto, and Mamdouh Shoukri from York University, attended the May 29 tribute dinner for Kaye is a testament to his work in that area. Someone at the tribute event characterized that testament as “Zac Power.”
Kaye said he is leaving Hillel in good shape. “We’re not leaving anything to chances,” he said, explaining that Jewish students on Toronto campuses have all the tools necessary to experience Jewish campus life, whether that’s in the form of Israel advocacy or something like environmental or social justice advocacy.
No matter what, students who want it have all the tools they need to realize their Jewish identity and to grow as a person, Kaye said. “That, for me, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about.”