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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Jewish student elected president of SSMU

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Zach Newburgh isn’t much of a follower. As a teen, he was president of his local youth group at Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ont. Then he became the national president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth.

Zach Newburgh [Julia Webster photo]

When he got to university, he became the president of Hillel at McGill, then the house president at Hillel Montreal.

Now a third-year student at McGill University, he has been voted president of the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU).

“I’m a person who is always interested in making sure that our community is the best that it can be. I’ve always driven toward that,” he said, adding that this started in Oakville.

“In Oakville, the Jewish community was the closest community to me… There weren’t a lot of Jews in Oakville at the time… I wanted to make sure the Jewish community was the strongest it could be.”

Newburgh is now taking this attitude to his university’s student council, where one of his goals is to get different groups on campus to come together and find a common identity.

He hopes to accomplish this by “not catering to one particular student, but catering to all students,” he said, adding that one way to do this is to concentrate on sports events and athletic activities.

“It’s something that is apolitical, it’s something every student has in common,” he said.

Through his role as house president of Hillel Montreal, Newburgh has been trying to reach out to other campus groups.

“[At Hillel] we’ve taken… steps to work with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian groups on campus,” he said.

“We’ve been meeting with them and recognizing on the most basic level that we’re human beings who are fighting for basic human rights, whether or not they’re from different perspectives.”

According to Newburgh, his work with Hillel has given him valuable experience.

“I’ve gained leadership skills,” he said.

“Jewish students have largely felt targeted and uncomfortable on campus, as have other student groups. As the president of an organization that deals specifically with groups who feel isolated, I have experience… making [these groups] feel like part of the community.”

Newburgh, who is a Middle East studies major, may eventually get involved in politics, and is fascinated by Arab society.

“I think the culture and language is remarkable. [Middle Eastern] politics have always been interesting to me… That interest has been affected by the fact that I’m Jewish,” he said, adding that he spent four months in Israel during a high school exchange program.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, spiritual leader of Shaarei-Beth El Congregation, sees Newburgh as a natural leader.

“He’s got a charisma about him, he’s got this magnetism. People are drawn to him, and when he gets excited about an idea, people want to… help him,” Rabbi Wise said. “I can see him being prime minister one day.”

Rabbi Wise, who saw Newburgh grow up in Oakville, said the student is not just passionate, but creative.

Newburgh proved this last year when he decided to make and hand out chicken soup at school.

“It wasn’t to make money, it was just to give people a big cup of chicken soup and  a bit of Jewish love,” Rabbi Wise said, adding that it was also a way to get people to stop and talk about Hillel.

“He comes from a tiny community… where he was one of three Jewish kids in a high school of 1,000,” Rabbi Wise said.

“He’s got his eyes on the big picture… In this climate, where Jewish students feel threatened on campus, to have a leader like him is incredible.”

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