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McMaster Hillel moves to new home

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McMaster Hillel students Ma'ayan Fadida, Gal Armon, Sam Neumark and Josh Arbess in front of their new Hamilton headquarters, the former home of Rabbi Bernard Baskin. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Schneider)

A house with a long history as a centre of Jewish life in Hamilton will be the new home of McMaster University’s main Jewish students group.

The former home of Rabbi Bernard Baskin has been leased to the campus Hillel. It was sold by Baskin’s family after he moved to a senior’s facility in Toronto.

Hamilton-based Effort Trust facilitated the lease with the new owner and backed a fundraising drive to cover the costs of renovating and equipping the property.

Marc Newburgh, president of Hillel Ontario, said the new centre will allow McMaster Hillel to greatly expand its range of programming for the university’s roughly 700 Jewish students.

Until now, Hillel’s on-campus office has been a windowless room in the sub-basement of a science building.

“We’ve been located in that lower level basement room with cinderblock walls with no natural light. It’s no more than a couple of hundred square feet and we’ve completely outgrown its use,” Newburgh said. “It has served its purpose quite well, but having a house near campus will be so much better.”

Originally used as the stable and coachman’s house on the estate of one of Hamilton’s wealthy founding families, the property was the Baskin home for 60 years. Baskin and his late wife Marjorie raised three children there and later ran a rare books business from its basement.

Baskin held the pulpit of Temple Anshe Sholom, Hamilton’s Reform synagogue, for 40 years, retiring in 1989.

Newburgh said the new space will allow the campus group to host Shabbat dinners, hold regular and holiday services and conduct many other activities the current basement room simply won’t support.

“Hillel typically has a house where we can have speakers, Shabbat morning services, holiday services and Shabbat dinners and those sorts of things,” he said. “Having a house is a tremendous asset for any Hillel and will only help us to amplify the work we do. This will be a tremendous opportunity for us and for the community.”

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Newburgh said Effort Trust’s support for the project grew from a long-standing friendship with company president Tom Weisz.

“I know that family’s significant philanthropic support for the Hamilton community,” he said. “They jumped all over this when Rabbi Baskin’s house became available. They took our conversations over the years and, when the time was right, they came to us with this proposition.”

In addition to programming the new Hillel house will have living space for five or six students or Hillel staff.

Effort Trust vice-president David Horwood, said the company and family were excited about the project both as a way to support Hillel and to keep a piece of local Jewish history from becoming just another student rental.

“Hillel was excited about the idea but had very limited funds to do this sort of project so that’s when our family got involved. Tom Weisz in particular took a special interest in wanting to ensure Hillel has a base for the foreseeable future, and to ensure the legacy that would be lost if Rabbi Baskin’s home became just another rental in Westdale.”

Until now, the only bricks-and-mortar Jewish establishment for McMaster students has been a Chabad house. By adding an institution with a liberal-secular bent, supporters hope to increase the audience of involved Jewish students.

“We think this is a great way to acknowledge the spectrum of Jewish students at McMaster and in Hamilton is very wide,” Horwood said. “Hillel speaks a little more to the progressive university experience students may have in Hamilton.”

Judith Dworkin, the director of McMaster Hillel, said she hopes something as simple as finally having access to a kosher kitchen will help in building the kind of community Hillel wants on its campuses.

“The new house will give us some more space to do the programming we need to do, but will also create a sense of community in a place that students can call their own,” she said. “Students can come and hang out. Because we have a kosher kitchen we can make meals because there’s a lot of programming centred around food.

“One of our constraints has been accessibility to kosher food. We don’t even have a sink in our current office. If we have a food program we have to cater it, so this will save a lot from our budget,” she added.

Through food, she said, the group hopes to use the new house as a base for the kind of community that can stand firm against attacks such as Israel Apartheid Weeks.

“What we do every day is build community and without a strong community we can’t be a voice for advocacy. When we are faced with adversity we have a strong base to respond,” she said. “Hopefully adversity won’t keep hitting us in the face, but when it does we’ll be ready.”

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