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Stepping outside the ‘Jewish bubble’

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(Flickr photo - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Jewish students about to start university often spend a fair bit of time thinking about the “Jewish bubble” – the cocoon of Jewish friends, summer camps, neighbourhoods and family that insulates them – and what it means to leave it.

But it turns out that some students don’t leave the bubble, so much as stick one foot out, while keeping one foot firmly anchored in Jewish life.

Lauren Szpindel, who is entering her second year at McGill University and graduated from Toronto’s TanenbaumCHAT day school, describes it this way:

“There’s so many benefits to keeping one foot in the bubble,” she says. “I made all my friends in that bubble, I went to school there. I want to always have a connection to it. It’s my heritage, it’s my community.… But I think it’s a reality check having friends who are not in the bubble. (It’s) like a breath of fresh air.”

But as much as she enjoys the broader horizons of university, she admits that there were a few surprising things to navigate. While TanenbaumCHAT spent a lot of time preparing her for anti-Semitism and anti-Israel expressions on campus, she has encountered very little of it in her personal life.

She has learned that she is an “invisible minority,” and while she may have been anxious when she was walking by a BDS protest, she never felt targeted. What she was unprepared for was the discussions in class and on campus about her “white privilege.”

“When I got to school, it was such a foreign concept to me,” she said. “We’re taught so much about Israel and Jewish situations and we’re not taught about what to do when someone approaches you about your privilege.”

It was a conversation she wished had been broached in her classes on preparing for life after high school.

The transition to university, especially for students living away from home, is challenging for everyone, but Jewish students also miss the cozy familiarity of going to school with people from a similar background.

“It takes a while to feel comfortable in an environment where people feel and look and respond differently,” said Ariel Roitman, a TanenbaumCHAT graduate who’s starting her second year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Growing up in a Jewish environment, however, meant that she was able to confidently explain Judaism, and what it means to be Jewish, to her new, non-Jewish friends, she said.

Queen’s also has an active Hillel and Chabad community and a considerable number of Jewish students (about 1,500, according to the 2018 campus guide published by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Hillel Ontario), so the transition was easier, she said.

Roitman was involved in Queen’s Israel on Campus chapter, but said that Israeli politics is not a “hot topic” at the university and the anti-Israel factions there are not as vocal, or as large, as at other universities.

Principals at Jewish high schools also spend a fair bit of time thinking about how to ensure that students stay anchored to the Jewish community after they leave. For most Jewish high schools, that largely means giving students a solid grounding in Israeli politics.

Typically, this includes a course in Grade 12 on the Middle East that presents a variety of viewpoints about Israeli life. “We expose them to a number of different approaches. We teach them how to listen and we teach them how to talk about Israel. We don’t proscribe what they should think,” said Russ Klein, head of Vancouver’s King David High School. Students are also taken to visit the University of British Columbia and Hillel, and hear from a variety of speakers throughout the year.

“Many of them will report they are still surprised by the level of animosity and lack of awareness toward Israel,” said Klein. While there’s nothing the school can do to prepare students for the shock of Israeli Apartheid Week, Klein said that most students tell him that living in residence is by and large a positive experience and that they rarely experience anti-Semitism.

Vancouver students, who grow up in a multicultural society, don’t really live in a Jewish bubble, he argues, and they interact with a diverse group of people while they’re in high school.

READ: TO WEAR UNIFORMS, OR NOT TO WEAR UNIFORMS?

But for some students, the Jewish bubble is all-encompassing. Raphi Stein graduated from Montreal’s Yeshiva Gedola about 10 years ago. The yeshiva did not participate with other schools, even Jewish ones, in activities such as science fairs or athletics.

Stein is one of a small number of Yeshiva Gedola students who attended university after yeshiva, graduating from Concordia University with a degree in computer science.

While he was surprised by the anti-Israel rhetoric at university, neither that, nor the more liberal atmosphere on campus, fazed him. “It’s not like going from Amish-country to New York City,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges was that at the yeshiva, secular education not encouraged beyond what was needed to pass mandatory provincial exams, which meant Stein needed to work extra hard to get where he felt he needed to be.

(Yeshiva Gedola did not respond to a request for comment on this story).

“It’s unfortunate that we missed out on some opportunities,” Stein said. “Many of the great Jewish scholars were scientists. They studied physics, astronomy and biology among other areas. We were barely exposed to these things. I believe great potential was wasted.”

Stein now works as a software engineer in Montreal. Two years ago, he started a free, volunteer-run, after-hours coding workshop called HackShtark for Orthodox boys. The learning is hands-on, with students working on projects of their choosing that also incorporate other areas of math and science. The program is fun, but the skills “are critical” in this economy, he said.

Students at the modern Orthodox Bnei Akiva Schools in Toronto (Ulpanat Orot and Or Chaim) don’t ever really leave the Jewish bubble, even to attend university, said the head of school, Rabbi Seth Grauer.

The school devotes many hours over the four years of high school to Zionism and the importance of Jewish values and Torah study, in the hope that students will maintain those practices as adults.

The majority of students spend a year or two after high school furthering their Jewish education in Israel. Then, unlike their modern Orthodox peers in the United States who go away for school, they tend to live at home and attend one of Toronto’s three universities.

There, many get involved with The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, and maintain their Jewish friends from school, summer camp and Israel.

“They go from one Jewish bubble to another, while transitioning to a larger community,” said Rabbi Grauer.