University is meant to be a place to learn, to share, to debate, to investigate and to enjoy. For many of us, that was our experience.
The baby boomers grew up in the 1960s and ’70s – a time when everything was up for discussion and experimentation. I went to Western University, where the fraternity system was strong. I rushed and ultimately joined what was the most successful fraternity at Western, the very Christian Sigma Chi. Two years later, I, the only Jew in the fraternity, became its president. Campus life was not perfect, but it was evolving in positive ways, with a focus on values, acceptance and opportunities for debate.
Half a century later, campus culture has changed. Rather than holding free speech and reasoned debate up as fundamental values, students now have to hold “acceptable” views, in order to fully participate in campus life. Dissent is often rejected, sometimes with anger and often with veiled or actual violence, and debate on many topics has become impossible.
This dumbing down of campus life has had a particularly deleterious effect on Jewish students, particularly those who are supporters of Israel. Based on the principle (such as it is) of intersectionality, Zionists are no longer accepted by many as “good” or “reasonable” individuals with whom to associate on campus. Anti-Semitism on campus, often masquerading as anti-Zionism, is a growing cancer that needs addressing.
North American Jewish communities have invested heavily in organizations that are trying to combat these forces of evil on campus. The largest, by far, is Hillel International. Its Ontario affiliate, Hillel Ontario, the largest regional Hillel in North America, supports approximately 13,500 Jewish students at nine universities across the province.
Hillel Ontario is one of those Jewish organizations that is worthy of investment – both in time and money.
(Full disclosure: I joined its board of directors about 18 months ago. At the time, Marc Newburgh had just taken over as CEO, after a successful career in the private sector. Newburgh impressed me with his competence and his drive, and after a review of the organization’s strategic pan, which is a well-articulated approach to a complex series of challenges, I accepted a position on the board.)
Hillel Ontario’s vision is strong, both strategically and tactically. The organization focuses on building strong relationships with university administrations, while offering students a combination of benefits to encourage involvement, including social opportunities, Jewish education, engagement with Israel and advocacy support.
This matrix of benefits can only be offered by Hillel, because it has financial support from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA, Hillel International, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, as well as many enlightened private donors who understand the importance of Hillel on campus and have acted on that understanding.
A major grant to provide funds for new talent was recently provided by the Silber family and that was further augmented by another major grant from the Schwartz-Reisman Foundation, to support Hillel’s advocacy activities. Hillel Ontario also became a partner with a U.S.-based organization that provides it with significant funding for pro-Israel advocacy initiatives on campus for both Jewish and non-Jewish students. As non-profits go, Hillel Ontario is a success story.
Many Jews are justifiably concerned about what takes place on campus, because much of what is right or wrong about our society germinates in our institutes of higher learning. Young minds are exposed to new ideas, books and articles are written, opinions and attitudes are impacted.
Today, across Canada, approximately 60 Hillel professionals are working to support Jewish students and improve the quality of Jewish student life on campus. Let’s wish them well, and support them as we can, as our community benefits greatly from their successes.