When Judy Schwartz walked into McMaster University’s Jewish Students’ Association (JSA) office to report for her first day of work as the new director in 1998, she was greeted by an empty desk and a rotary phone.
“I thought to myself, ‘Now, what do I do?’” she recalled.
Schwartz spent the next 14 years building JSA’s presence at McMaster, providing students with a safe place to hang out, fostering pride in their Jewish identities, and advocating on their behalf.
This past school year, which wound down last month, was Schwartz’s last as JSA’s director.
Schwartz, 65, decided to retire from a position she never saw as merely a job.
“I have learned more and accomplished more because of the amazing students that I worked with, met and enjoyed. My life has been enriched beyond belief. This to me is not a job. It’s a vocation. I loved my job and I’m going to miss it, but my time has come.”
Schwartz explained that she was offered the position in 1998 to replace the late Sheila Freedman, who was battling cancer.
As a Jewish community volunteer for many years, Schwartz was eager to take on a new challenge.
“But I accepted the job not knowing anything about it. And because Sheila was so ill, I really had no way of talking to her,” she said.
“In the beginning of my tenure, I had no idea what a computer looked like. I didn’t know how to use one.”
So she bought a computer and took a course to learn how to use one.
“Now I had a desk, a rotary phone and a computer,” she said with a laugh.
Schwartz was initially hired to come in for just five hours, once a week, but quickly realized that wouldn’t suffice, so she increased her hours to three times a week.
“Most of the students are living away from home. I would say without knowing for sure, that 95 to 99 per cent of our students [come from] outside of Hamilton. It really is not a commuter school… I knew that we needed something more on campus than just the five hours a week,” she said.
“We wanted McMaster to have an amazing Jewish experience, and we wanted to provide all students with what they needed on our campus,” Schwartz said.
When she first started at McMaster, Schwartz served her 80 or so members with social events and programming that promoted Jewish traditions.
“Then all of a sudden, the Second Intifadah happened [in 2000], and these new groups on campus were formulated, like Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and they were a major adversary.”
She said the initifadah changed life on campus forever.
“The antisemitism that I could never imagine existing at this point happened at our campus.”
On a number of occasions, swastikas were drawn on the JSA office door and a sign that welcomed students to the JSA was routinely taken or knocked down.
“I had hate mail sent and I actually had to get the hate crimes unit involved to track the hate mail… That’s when I think the community started to realize… the importance of Jewish identity, the importance of Israel identity, pride in our faith and pride in our heritage [on campus],” Schwartz said.
“I also knew it was important for me to network, and so I got to work on campus learning who the chaplains were, who the human rights equity officer was, and so on,” she added.
She said the focus of the JSA had to shift to accommodate the challenges faced by Jewish students.
“I learned at the time that when you stand up for Israel, you have to know who you are. We tried to bring to campus learning and pride in our Jewish roots.”
She said things took a turn for the better later in 2000, when she learned about a new initiative that was sending young Jews on free trips to Israel.
“I get a phone call one day and someone is screaming in my ear, ‘We’re going to Israel! We’re going to Israel!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ That was the first time I had ever heard the words Taglit Birthright,” she said, adding that the program was “the best thing to happen for the Jewish people.”
Today, Schwartz estimates that there are about 800 Jews at McMaster, and JSA membership has jumped from about 80 students in 1998 to about 375 members today.
Until the very end, Schwartz advocated on behalf of her students and maintained relationships with faculty and administrators on campus.
“I was very fortunate to be part of PACBIC, the president’s advisory committee on building an inclusive community. I sat on the council, and I brought what’s important to the Jewish students on campus to these meetings.”
Adira Winegust, outgoing JSA vice-president, who has known Schwartz for four years, admired her for being such a strong advocate for Jewish students.
“She was often the one who would go to the administration with student concerns. This year, for example, there were scheduling problems with the mid-terms and the chagim,” Winegust said.
“She was also very supportive of students’ initiatives. This year I organized an all-women Megillah reading [on Purim] for the first time at Mac, and she was very supportive of that.”
But Winegust, who is originally from Toronto, saw Schwartz as more than just a Jewish community professional. She was also a mother figure.
“When I was in second year, I contracted swine flu. I came into the JSA office early one morning saying, ‘I’m not feeling well,’ and Judy says to me, ‘If you end up in the hospital, call me and I’ll come.’”
Winegust said that by the time she got home, she had a 40-degree fever. Her roommate rushed her to the emergency room, but it would be nearly two hours before her parents would arrive in Hamilton from Toronto.
“I did end up calling Judy, and she ended up staying with me in the emergency room until my family came.”
Winegust said most of all, she’ll miss Schwartz’s warmth and her ability to make anyone, Jewish or not, feel welcome in the JSA office.
“We’re really going to miss Judy.”
And Schwartz said she’s really going to miss them.
“Working with students, seeing them grow, seeing them mature, become good citizens of the university – every day it was a joy to see that. I’m going to miss it.”