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Friday, July 11, 2014

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Why I’m planning Jewish frosh week at McGill

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Esther Vinarov

Almost a year ago, I arrived in Montreal to begin my first year of university at McGill University. Words could not express how excited I was, for everything – meeting new people, late nights at the library, discovering Montreal.

The rest of my life was about to start, and it began with orientation week. The bulk of that first week before classes consisted of various orientation events aimed at bringing first-year students together. While excited to participate in frosh week, I soon discovered frosh events were nothing more than extravagant, if well-planned, parties. While not against drinking and partying, I was not the most comfortable in that type of social situation.

Luckily, the great thing about a huge school like McGill is that everyone can find something to suit their interests, which is why there were also several alternative frosh week events planned – smaller, special-interest gatherings for people who didn’t want to attend the bigger ones.

Immediately, one event stood out for me: it was known as Gefilte Frosh and catered to incoming Jewish students. I would not call myself a particularly observant or religious Jew, but Judaism has always been very important to me culturally – a guaranteed path towards a welcoming community. I knew immediately that participating in Gefilte Frosh would be an excellent way to start the year.

From the moment I signed up, I felt very welcome. I loved the events that were planned – we went on a tour of Old Jewish Montreal, danced at a Yemen Blues concert, kayaked down the Lachine Canal, and listened to a very chill klezmer band. We had many wonderful meals together, broke out of the McGill bubble, and got to know our fellow frosh and frosh leaders very well.

I never had a moment’s regret choosing to attend an alternative frosh week. I made very close friends that I consistently saw throughout the year at various Jewish events and dinners. Having a Jewish community on campus was a great anchor to have during my freshman year, and it’s something I hope to continue building on in the next few years.

To that end, the time has come for orientation 2013, or O-Week as it has been styled. My friend, Hannah Restle, who I met through Gefilte Frosh, took on the role of planning the entire Jewish frosh week this year. She recruited many of her fellow frosh from last year, including myself, to help plan the events.

We’ve been working the entire summer to create everything from a name – this year, we decided on “Frosher on the Roof” – to a colourful website. There was a lot to take care of, from event-planning, to sponsor-gathering, money-managing and, most importantly, getting the word out. Alternative frosh week events don’t get nearly as much word of mouth as the more mainstream ones, but they’re more than deserving of attention and praise.

Frosher on the Roof is officially run under the auspices of the Ghetto Shul, a student-run Jewish organization in Montreal. It will provide students with the full McGill Jewish experience by taking them to visit a range of Jewish groups both on and off campus, including Hillel and Chabad.

In a recent meeting with Hannah, I asked her what spurred her to take on all the responsibility of planning a frosh week, especially when we had relatively few resources in terms of finances and manpower. She told me it all stemmed from the impact Gefilte Frosh had on her: “By participating in frosh week last year, I was immediately welcomed into a warm Jewish community at McGill which really supported me through the ups and downs of first-year at university. I wanted to help out with frosh this year to provide students with this same support network.” 

Although the idea of a Jewish frosh week was launched last year by a small group of motivated students to provide an alternative to the bar culture found in most other frosh week events, it has become much more. It has developed at a time when the university’s Jewish community is undergoing many changes in hopes of engaging a larger number and wider variety of students at McGill.

For the first time this year, McGill will have a Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) couple stationed on campus to develop the community and provide educational programming for students. Hillel is reforming its student leadership structure and instituting a system of programming that pairs interns with students who have similar interests. In addition, Chabad is renovating its space on Rue Stanley and constructing an area where Jewish students feel comfortable socializing throughout the week, not just over Shabbat. These promising initiatives reflect the way in which Jewish communities on campus are responding to the new needs of the modern Jewish student population.

More than anything, my first year taught me the importance of having a community. In a school of tens of thousands of people, it’s necessary to find sub-groups with similar passions and interests. Jews have an excellent reputation when it comes to fostering communities, and their presence on campus is as strong and as comforting as ever.

Frosher on the Roof is an excellent starting point for all new arrivals to Montreal and is an event not to be missed.

Registration is now open on McGill’s official O-Week website, and Frosher on the Roof has options to purchase one-day, two-day, or a full experience pass. Visit http://frosherontheroof.wix.com/thejewishfrosh2013 for more details.

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