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Jewish Life at York University

May 13, 2015 | Campus, Judaism

yorkuniversity_1785001aAfter 37 years of teaching Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto, I am grateful for the opportunity to write about my own experiences at a university that is, I believe, one of the most welcoming places for Jewish students and faculty and for Jewish Studies, and yet is often portrayed as being unfriendly or even unsafe for Jews.

How did Canadian universities treat Jews in the past?

How is the situation different today?

How does the quality of Jewish life at York compare to other Canadian universities?

What problems exist for Jewish students at York?

Are the problems Jews face at York similar to the ones Jews face at other universities?

Is the situation worse at York than at other campuses?

Has the current York administration reacted effectively and appropriately to the anti-Israel activism?

What does it feel like to be a Jew at York?

How did Canadian universities treat Jews in the past?

Canadian universities were openly antisemitic until the 1950s or even the 1960s. Many academic programs, and certainly the most prestigious ones, admitted only a certain quota of Jews. This meant that a Jew needed to have higher grades than a non-Jew in order to get accepted into law, medicine and many other desirable programs.

Only rarely were Jews hired as professors at a Canadian university, especially in the arts. The idea of a Jew serving as dean, provost, or president of a university was almost unthinkable.

Universities gave only the most grudging religious accommodation to Jews. Jews just a few years older than I am, who attended what were then the best universities in the country, tell me that when an exam fell on a Jewish holiday, they were sometimes locked up incommunicado for as long as 48 hours so they could not speak to students who had taken the exam, and then permitted to take the exam at night after Shabbat or the holiday had finished. These students considered themselves lucky that any consideration was given to their religious scruples. Most Jews felt that they had been admitted on sufferance to a Christian university in a Christian country and most Christians would have agreed.

Jewish Studies as we know it was unheard of in Canadian universities before the 1960s. Universities taught about many civilizations, but not ours. Departments of theology occasionally offered courses about the Hebrew Bible or biblical Hebrew, but these courses were generally taught by Protestant or Catholic clergy.

How is the situation different today?

Thankfully, these memories are fading from our consciousness here in Canada. Jews feel at home in Canadian universities, as much as any other group. Jewish philosophy, history and literature are now legitimate and respected fields of inquiry in Canadian academia. I have received four (!) multi-year research grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a government agency, to research medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. But that does not mean that all universities are the same. Some are distinctly friendlier to Jews than others.

How does the quality of Jewish life at York compare to other Canadian universities?

In the following significant ways, York is a friendlier home for Jewish students and faculty members than almost any other university in Canada:

  • York has the largest number of Jewish students of any university in Ontario and perhaps in Canada.
  • York has the largest Jewish Studies program of any university in Canada. Three of our academic positions were endowed by generous donations from members of the Jewish community. But the first Jewish Studies positions were an initiative of the university, not the community, and most of our positions today (including my own) are totally funded by the university. In other words, York recognizes the importance of teaching Jewish civilization, history, culture and religion, and it invests money in these fields.
  • York has taught modern Hebrew language and literature for almost fifty years. The salary of our tenured professor of modern Hebrew is from York, not from an endowed chair. Many Canadian universities do not teach modern Hebrew; some of those that do hire underpaid and sometimes underqualified contract faculty members to do the job.
  • At York, the study of the Hebrew Bible has always been part of Jewish Studies. The professors are generally Jews who are involved with the Jewish community. It is shocking how few other Canadian universities have professors trained in any aspect of biblical scholarship. In universities that do teach Bible, a significant number of faculty are theology or literature professors who read little Hebrew and are unfamiliar with Jewish interpretations of the Bible.
  • York has a prestigious Jewish Teacher Education Program, one of only two Canadian universities with such programs. When I visit a Jewish Day School or supplementary school here in Toronto I invariably meet former students of mine working as teachers or administrators. One York Jewish Studies graduate was recently appointed head of school of perhaps the most prestigious day school in the U.S.
  • For the 37 years that I have been at York, and for many years before that, York has had a kosher restaurant on campus where you can buy three meals a day. On-campus kosher restaurants are rare. A Hillel employee recently told me that he estimates that just fifteen universities in North America have a kosher restaurant on campus.
  • York has one of the strongest and most effective Hillel organizations of any Canadian university. It serves everyone from Jews who are looking for a place to recite afternoon prayers with a minyan to LGBT Jews.
  • York has exchange agreements with Israeli universities, and is signing more of them all the time. Only some of these involve Jewish Studies. Just this summer, in the middle of the Gaza War, students from York’s Lassonde School of Engineering were at the Technion in Israel, as part of a newly signed exchange agreement between the two schools. Israeli exchange professors and students have been a presence at York for many years.
  • York has consistently sent students to Israel for study abroad programs, even during the worst years of the intifada. Many other respected universities in Canada and the United States refused to allow their students to study in Israel then, claiming that if they approved a student’s program of studies in Israel and the student was injured in a terrorist incident, the university might be held responsible. York never used this dubious excuse and never discouraged students from studying in Israel.
  • York has the most generous policy of any Canadian university for granting credit for study in Israel.
  • York has had Jewish presidents, vice-presidents and deans in numbers far beyond our community’s percentage of the population of Canada. York’s record in appointing qualified Jews to senior leadership positions is among the best in Canada.
  • York has one of the most generous procedures for accommodating Jews who need to reschedule tests and assignments for religious reasons. At one point, York was the only university in Canada (and one of a mere handful in North America) that held no classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the demographics of the university changed and Jews stopped being the largest minority religion, this policy was changed. Accommodations, however, remain easily available.

From the perspective of almost any quantifiable or measurable criterion, York is at or right near the top of all Canadian, and most American, universities in meeting the wants and needs of Jewish students and faculty members.

What problems exist for Jewish students at York?

Unfortunately there are several.

  • At York a number of people, both students and faculty members, criticize the State of Israel unfairly and incessantly. They have sometimes managed to take over the student government and some of the unions. They have no power to influence university policy but they can spread their calumnies about Israel and make Israel supporters feel uncomfortable.
  • The criticism of Israel can have antisemitic overtones. When people who have no particular connection to the Middle East obsessively criticize Israel and ignore human rights abuses in other countries it seems at a minimum plausible to think they may be antisemites. The border between fervent anti-Zionism and antisemitism is often porous.
  • Professors teaching a course unrelated to politics or to the Middle East sometimes use their courses as a bully pulpit to criticize Israel. Jewish students in these classes feel that they have no recourse but to listen and suffer in silence. After all, the professor is the one giving them a grade.
  • Israel Apartheid Week” is happily a non-event at York these days, although it is quite active on some other campuses. But the fact that it exists even on posters is disturbing to many supporters of Israel (including me). Student groups who promote the idea of “BDS” against Israel are powerless to induce the university to boycott, divest or sanction Israel. But their voices are disturbing nonetheless.

Are the problems Jews face at York similar to the ones Jews face at other universities?

I have met Jews all over Canada and beyond who are convinced that York must be among the worst places for a Jew to study or work. Most of these people have never set foot on campus.

Unfortunately, York has been targeted by some Jewish media, organizations, and individuals, who, in their laudable zeal to fight antisemitism, have repeatedly covered only the negative aspects of Jewish life at York. Since people regularly read about anti-Israel events at York and never read about such events at Western or Dalhousie, they are convinced that this must be a York problem.

It isn’t.

Every Canadian university campus has people who feel that the State of Israel has no right to exist, professors who abuse their power over students by turning their classes into a bully pulpit, and proponents of BDS. To find a university where no one ever calls Israel an apartheid state, you would have to go to Bar-Ilan University, Yeshiva University, or perhaps an evangelical college in the US Bible Belt. At any other university in Israel, Canada or the U.S., you cannot avoid hearing such charges.

Is the situation worse at York than at other campuses?

Actually, nobody (including me) knows.

But unlike the inflammatory organizations and people I mentioned above, none of whom has even one person working at York, the one community organization that does have people on the ground is Hillel. Hillel has never described York in this way. The Hillel staff that I have spoken to over the years tend to disagree strongly with negative portrayals of Jewish life at York.

No one has ever done a reliable count of antisemitic or anti-Israel events at different Canadian universities. Jewish media concentrate their stories about anti-Zionism and antisemitism on York because it’s close to where newspapers are published and because the university is full of vocal Jewish students and faculty members who blow the whistle. How many whistle blowers are there at Guelph or at Windsor? How would, let’s say, the Jewish Tribune go about writing a story on the BDS movement in Alberta?

To use an analogy: Sadly, in the wider Canadian press in recent years, more stories have appeared about alleged human rights abuses in Israel than about such abuses in Yemen, Belarus, Ghana and Pakistan combined. We in the know realize that the human rights situation is far better in Israel than in any of these countries. But it is easier to write a human rights story about Israel, where freedom of the press is guaranteed. There is also more interest in these stories. Similarly, it is easier to write a story about the BDS movement at York than at the University of Saskatchewan, and there is more interest in the York story since so many Jews are at York.

Has the current York administration reacted effectively and appropriately to the anti-Israel activism?

No, and my colleagues and I have often told them that. The current administration is committed to projecting neutrality and never taking a stand on any tendentious issue at the university. I personally think this is imprudent.

But is this inaction a sign of anti-Zionism or antisemitism? No. For proof, see the points listed above under “How does the quality of Jewish life at York compare to other Canadian universities?” These positive points about York would be impossible if the administration at York were not friendly to the Jewish community. True, the extremely strong and vibrant Hillel at York is not directly attributable to the administration. That said, the York administration has consistently been friendly and helpful to Hillel, too. Hillel, in turn, has fostered a strong sense of a Jewish community at York and has been an effective voice for Jewish interests at York, working with many branches of the administration. This is reflected in the close relationship between Hillel and Student Services, as well as Hillel’s involvement in the York Interfaith Council and York’s Centre for Human Rights.

What does it feel like to be a Jew at York?

Committed young Jews, many of whom have always lived in a Jewish bubble and have never heard virulent criticism of Israel from purportedly knowledgeable people and people of authority, feel uncomfortable when they attend any university in Canada, including York. They discover that many members of the Canadian intelligentsia and many campus union leaders are anti-Israel. This troubling situation applies throughout Canadian academia. (Small comfort: it’s worse in Europe.)

Perhaps another reason why Jews may feel uncomfortable at York is changing demographics. Twice in the last year, Jewish adults who visited York confided in me afterwards that they had felt “uncomfortable” on campus. I pressed them to find out if any kind of incident had taken place. Nothing had. They admitted that they just felt uncomfortable when they saw so many people at York dressed in traditional Muslim garb.

The fact is that York is Canada. York reflects Canadian demographics more accurately than do Forest Hill, Thornhill, or Côte St. Luc. There are 3 to 4 times as many Muslims in Canada as Jews. No one really knows, but the numbers at York are probably similar, and some of our Muslim students even take Jewish Studies courses. Canadian Jews will have to get used to the “feeling” of walking around York University, if they want to continue to feel comfortable in Canada.

Jewish students at York are almost all commuter students. They and the Jewish faculty members at York, and I include myself, often live in a Jewish bubble when we are not at York. While this causes us to feel a dissonance between home and school, our rich Jewish lives at home are, in fact, a source of strength. Our Jewish values are enriched and sustained by living in the strongest and most vibrant Jewish community in Canada, and one of the strongest and most vibrant in the world. At the same time, the challenges to our values that we meet at university and elsewhere are also a source of strength. They force us to think seriously about our commitments and about how to counter ideas and values that challenge us, sometimes fairly and often unfairly. When a student decides to avoid “the Israel problem” by going to study in Kingston or in Halifax, she has made, in my assessment two errors. She has chosen a university and a city with fewer Jewish resources than we have here in Toronto.

Unlike other places in Canada, where I would only wear a hat, at York I always feel comfortable wearing a kippah. Many students and a handful of faculty members in all faculties wear kippot on campus all the time. My colleagues, both Jewish and gentile, respect my values and have made it easy for me to live my Jewish life on campus. I feel fortunate to have spent my academic career at a place that supports my teaching Jewish texts, and encourages me to spend time doing research in Israel.

Jewish students choosing a university should look for a campus where they can advance their knowledge of Judaism, be supported if they choose to do part of their studies in the Jewish state, and find positive, meaningful ways to express their Judaism on campus. In Canada, they won’t do better than at York.

The Exchange: Spotlight on York

Lorne Sossin: The Wellspring of Jewish Life at York
Daniel Ferman: Jewish Life at York: 2006-2010
Adam Hummel: York Made Me a Better Jew

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