There’s a new Jewish kid on campus, one who’s confident about her rights, able to educate others who might try to intimidate her, and willing to express her Judaism proudly while helping to combat the rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment around her.
The kid is no kid, though: she’s a new community start-up called the Centre for Jewish Culture and Education (CJCE).
Founded by president Vera Held and executive director Lisa Cohen, the Toronto-based organization – which has applied for charitable status – is focused on helping Jewish young people become more confident emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically about expressing their Judaism and human rights in school settings.
“With the overt resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism, helping youth in this way is a must more than ever,” Held says.
In light of reports that say high school and post-secondary students are afraid to express themselves as Jews or be pro-Israel for fear of being bullied, threatened or discriminated against by peers and educators, the CJCE plans to provide workshops, literature, webinars and other tools to help students challenge anti-Semitism and advocate for their rights.
Cohen says campus life has been transformed since she first went to York University as a student in 2002.
“In 13 short years, the tide has totally changed at York. I can’t even process how unwelcoming to Jews it’s become,” says Cohen. “We are supposed to move forward – it’s 2015. But on campuses, it seems like we’re moving backward in terms of anti-Semitism.”
CJCE is beginning its outreach through speaking engagements with community groups, Jewish societies and schools, as well as through continuing education at synagogues. “We want to appeal to and engage all generations,” Held says.
Held and Cohen met through the group Canadians for Israel, where they realized they had complementary skills: Held has more than 30 years experience in communications, education and fundraising, while Cohen has an extensive background on campuses in counselling and psychology. They’re also working with a group of volunteers, comprising mostly parents of high school- and university-aged students.
From information sessions and focus groups, Held and Cohen say they’re encountering an incredible amount of ignorance from students about their basic human rights, but they’ve also learned how frightened they are and how upsetting their experiences with anti-Semitism have been.
In response, CJCE volunteers are researching university policies on human rights, as well as making connections with professors and developing partnerships with like-minded advocates to assist with communication, education and fundraising.
Held and Cohen are also trying to build alliances with groups across Ontario and hope to extend their work across Canada. They are currently in the midst of developing their education protocol and will soon make their curriculum available on their website.
High school students are also being trained to be on-site liaisons at 20 Ontario universities.
“We are developing professionals for the future,” Cohen says.
“At university, you start defining your role as an adult. We want to make sure that Jewish students feel safe to be who they are and are able to educate others,” she adds.
“We want to give them the tools to make the best decisions, whether it’s dealing with the BDS movement or with anti-Semitic professors. If we don’t start with these kids now, they are going to think it’s normal to be afraid of being Jewish and expressing themselves as Jews.”