“Ottawa? Who even goes to school in Ottawa? Are you really going to Ottawa?”
As a Jewish girl from Toronto, that’s what I heard when I told friends I was venturing off to Canada’s not-so-far-away capital city.
My younger brother is now finishing his final year of high school. When he has friends over for Shabbat dinner, my family is sure to prod them about their options.
“So, where are you thinking of going to school next year?” we ask.
“Oh, you know, Queen’s, Western, McGill.”
“Of course,” I think to myself.
While there is nothing wrong with these very reputable institutions, I’m here to let you in on a secret: there are other choices.
Canada’s beautiful capital holds the key to any Jewish girl’s fantasy: ripe with opportunities to meet the Jewish boy of your dreams, make new friends, expand your horizons, get involved politically, and have your pick of some of the best internships.
We may not have the largest Jewish student body (yet), but it’s definitely close knit.
Last September, I came to the University of Ottawa with incredibly low expectations. I was closed off socially, thinking, “I’m here strictly for my program, and whenever I’m bored, I’ll go on the 1-1/2-hour journey to Queen’s to visit my friends.”
It never occurred to me that one year later, I would be the city-wide president of Hillel Ottawa.
My first week settling into this new environment, I found myself missing my fellow members of the tribe. My mom, who, naturally, subscribed to Hillel Ottawa’s newsletter almost a full year before my arrival, informed me of Hillel’s annual welcome back barbecue. And, as any good Jewish mother does, she insisted I go at least for a little bit and see what Hillel is all about.
I entered that barbecue as a reluctant first-year, expecting a socially awkward and uncomfortable evening of small talk.
I could not have been more wrong.
Seconds after my arrival, I had already been warmly greeted by multiple students who were genuinely happy to meet me. These other students actually welcomed me into their group of friends, and took me under their wings. It was uncanny how friendly and down to earth everyone was.
That was a turning point in my university experience. The friends I have made since then are genuine, warm and also diverse.
Now, I am incredibly proud to say I am the student leader of the organization that makes that possible. I know how Hillel shaped my social life here in Ottawa. At every event we have, be it at our Shabbat dinners, formals, Jews&Brews, Jews&Java, speed-dating, or any of the other events we put on throughout the year, I know there is always someone there in the same place as I was when I walked into my first Hillel barbecue, and we consistently put forth our best efforts in making everyone feel welcome.
You don’t have to be religious to come to Hillel events. You just have to be open to new experiences and meeting new people.
That’s the reason we have these events – to give each student the same chance I had to turn around their university experience.
Arielle Ellis is the city-wide president for Hillel Ottawa.