Jewish Life at York: 2006-2010

May 26, 2015 | Campus, Community Partners, Judaism, Toronto

yorkuniversity_1785001aI am a proud York University alumnus. York University provided me with an exceptional postsecondary education, which has been foundational to supporting my career as a professional accountant. During my tenure as a student at York’s Schulich School of Business from 2006-2010, I received a top-notch education, which helped me secure a position with one of the leading international accounting firms. My decision to attend York University was based on a desire to learn from some of the best professors and have the opportunity to learn alongside students that shared common goals.

Upon arrival at the university, I wanted to become engaged in campus life beyond my academic focus. In particular, I sought to be involved Jewishly, and I became acquainted with several campus organizations, including Hillel. In my third year of study, I put my name forward as a candidate for the position of president with Hillel at York. Why? In the preceding years, Hillel had provided me with countless opportunities to “do Jewish,” develop strong friendships with other students, as well as provide deeper Jewish meaning in my daily life.

As a recipient of an impactful Hillel experience, I wanted to positively influence the experiences of others. While I previously served in various roles with Hillel during my first two years of university, I wanted to take the next step, which—for me—was being elected to the role of president. This leadership position provided me with tremendous organizational insight within both the Jewish and York communities. At York, I had the privilege of working with many students, staff, faculty, and administrators, which enabled me to acquire rich exposure to such a complex institution.

At York, which purportedly has the largest Jewish campus population in Canada, it has been publicly documented that there have been disturbing events over the years that have impacted York’s Jewish community. In the winter of 2009, when I served as president of Hillel at York, the climate on campus was tense. Indeed, there were some events that are etched in the Jewish community’s memory.

A crowd of students associated with the student government of the time and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) formed outside the Hillel lounge chanting threats like “racists off our campus,” and, “the students united will never be defeated.” The clear implication was that the predominantly Jewish delegation of students inside the lounge were racist and the larger campus community was united against the Jewish community on campus. The crowd banged on the door and windows and blocked the exit. The cornered Jewish students felt intimidated and threatened. Maybe not everyone intended to be anti-Semitic, maybe not most. Maybe it was just a few. But the hostility felt that night was contrary to Canadian values, and unacceptable on any university campus. My fellow students and I were unable to leave the Hillel facility, until Toronto police ultimately created a buffer zone to escort us out.

Later that night, Hillel mobilized with the help of other Jewish community stakeholders (UJA Federation of Greater Toronto (UJA), The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), along with other Jewish campus groups). The following day, Hillel held a peace rally on campus, responding to a previously planned pro-Palestinian event.

I noted at the time, “The climate on York’s campus of aggressive intimidation, violent rhetoric and physical harassment is unacceptable. The hostile environment demonstrates contempt for all students — not only to Jewish students.”

Following these events, the university launched a taskforce, which received numerous submissions. A report was produced with specific recommendations on how to improve life on campus for students, including creating meaningful and respectful ways for dialogue.

This history should be recognized—not dismissed or discounted—but it needs to be placed in context. Back in 2009, York moved quickly to reassure the Jewish community that it was a safe and desirable place for Jews to congregate and thrive, and campus life quickly began to return to “normal.” Today, Vari Hall is no longer known for its protests, but rather as a central place on campus to meet people.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege of serving on Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Board of Directors and, through this role, I know that York is continuing to converse with the Jewish community in Toronto, including through our primary connection to campus, Hillel. Strides have been made, and progress will continue. York was—and continues to be—a great place to be Jewish.

The Exchange: Spotlight on York

Lorne Sossin: The Wellspring of Jewish Life at York
Martin Lockshin: Jewish Life at York University
Adam Hummel: York Made Me a Better Jew

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