As 5772 comes to an end and we get set to ring in the Jewish New Year, Hillel of Greater Toronto has many reasons to celebrate the past year and has much to look forward to in the days ahead.
At the annual Hillel Institute conference, held in St. Louis last month, Hillel of Greater Toronto was awarded the Indispensable Member of the University Community Award.
The award recognizes Hillels that demonstrate excellence in promoting the organization’s strategic plan to encourage Jewish students to become involved in Jewish community activities.
Hillel of Greater Toronto, which represents about 8,000 Jewish post-secondary students in the Toronto area, was likely singled out in part for its success in implementing Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative.
Hillel of Greater Toronto’s associate executive director Rabbi Aaron Katchen explained that the University of Toronto was one of 13 campuses in North America chosen by Hillel International to launch the pilot program partly funded by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.
“It’s coming from a program developed at Northwestern University Hillel and the then-campus Rabbi [Josh] Feigelson. He brought the program to Hillel International and we tweaked it,” Rabbi Katchen said.
He said the idea behind the program is to “use the power of the question to build community and move away from the hard questions that are divisive in nature,” such as questions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Big questions are those that matter to everyone, regardless of their religion, culture, race, gender or political beliefs.
“A big question invites people in. It brings together people who can be on opposite sides of a dispute and make them able to see their similarities and build trust,” Rabbi Katchen said.
“A question could be, ‘Where do you feel at home? When do you feel secure? What are you thankful for?’… It’s not about what the right answer is, it’s about, ‘What is your answer?’”
The hope, he added, is that if a hard question that has the potential to polarize students does come up, students will be better equipped to have respectful dialogue.
Rabbi Katchen said each Hillel was encouraged to adapt the program to fit the “personality, demographic and makeup” of the campus.
When the program began last year, each of U of T’s four Hillel interns were required to reach out to a minimum of 30 students and engage them in big question conversations.
Rabbi Katchen explained that after the interns had one-on-one conversations with the 30 students, they’d have to organize monthly conversations for a group of five to 10 of those students.
For the staff at Hillel of Greater Toronto, one of the goals was to turn the initiative into a campus-wide conversation.
Apparently, U of T administrators took notice.
Hillel extended its reach to partner with a number of organizations on campus, including U of T’s student activity centre (Hart House), the Multifaith Centre and the Ecumenical Chaplaincy.
He said that since he started promoting the Ask Big Questions program beyond Hillel, other campus organizations have begun to evaluate ways to incorporate the program’s philosophy into other areas of university life.
“They’ve been using us as a resource to elevate their own work. There are different groups that we are a part of now that are looking at campus-wide questions,” Rabbi Katchen said.
“We’re being seen as experts on this and we’re there to provide training and resources, and people can run with it and incorporate the philosophy wherever they are on campus.”
He added that Hillel is invested in building relationships with everyone at the university.
“We’re looking at developing relationships and having ongoing conversations with the different levels of the university so we’re not just seen as reactive, but that we’re a partner with the university and not just an island where Jewish students are off in the corner,” he said.
“We want to make sure to incorporate the Jewish voice into all levels of the university.”