York Made Me a Better Jew

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

york-university-featureI graduated from York University in 2007, having spent four years completing an honours B.A. in political science and history, and two years as president of Hillel at York.

My four years at York saw the rise of “Israel Apartheid Week” with its inevitable “Apartheid Wall”; public lectures by, among others, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein; everyday anti-Israel protests in Vari Hall; the discontinuance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as university holidays; a “Stop the Hate” campaign quickly becoming a “Stop Israel/JNF” campaign; Hezbollah t-shirts being worn as a new fashion trend; and anti-Semitic leaflets being left in the Ross Library declaring that Jews were to blame for all the ails of the world.

On top of that, I was personally blamed for the apparent “genocide” of the Palestinian people, denounced in the middle of the student centre as a “f—ing Zionist” by the President of the York Federation of Students himself, and written about ad nauseum in York’s Excalibur newspaper for supporting the policies of the oppressive Zionist state.

So why is it that 8 years later I look back at York University with such fondness?

I am neither a glutton for punishment nor do I enjoy the spotlight in the ways described above. I look back at York with fondness because of what I learned there, what I experienced, and because of how my involvement in Jewish campus life at York changed me for the better, and opened up doors of opportunity that have stayed open ever since.

Getting involved

I was not interested in Jewish campus life when I first arrived at York in 2003. I had just finished 12 years in the Jewish day school system, and wanted a break. It was only because of a push from my father that I signed up for Hillel emails, started going to the Hillel lounge, attending programs, volunteering for campaigns, and eventually getting involved on the Board.

I met interesting people, learned about Hillel’s philosophy of engagement, was given exciting opportunities, and gained a certain confidence that I did not have before.

Diversity of Jewish life at York

One thing I learned rather soon after getting involved was that there is diversity in Jewish campus life at York that is unparalleled elsewhere. There are involved Jews, Jews in name only, hyper-Zionist Jews, anti-Zionist Jews, frat-boy Jews, Jews of every ethnic background, religious Jews, secular Jews, traditional Jews, Jews taking Jewish-studies courses, and Jews who only show up to fight when there’s a brawl in Vari Hall (rhyme intended).

The diversity above is, unfortunately, often overshadowed by the negativity associated with York. Perhaps in my position as president of Hillel at York, I got to peek into that aspect of York that other Jewish students at York, who only glimpse the surface, and only see the protests, don’t necessarily get a chance to experience; but it is there.

York has an energetic and vibrant Jewish studies department that employs brilliant and passionate professors and teaching assistants. Hillel at York is a valued member of the York interfaith council, and is often looked upon to run and participate in events. The Jewish community partners with different student clubs in incredible cultural and ethnic programming. There are amazing opportunities for Jewish students to become extraordinary activists and advocates for Israel and Zionism. And finally, there is a kosher restaurant on campus that serves amazing food, and that provides a perfect setting for a Wednesday lunch-and-learn.

The above aspects do exist at York, but it certainly requires both effort and interest to find them, as the university, being a commuter school with an obvious penchant for conflict, makes it easy for those students who wish to disengage, to come to school, go to class, and head home afterwards. However, that was not the York that I experienced.

What I learned

Today I am a lawyer. I serve on and chair numerous committees affiliated with the UJA and other Jewish community organizations, and am the founder of a small peace-building project in rural Kenya. I am also happily married – I also met my wife at York. All of this, I can say without hesitation, is a result of my four years at York University.

Believe it or not, York made me a better Jew. Perhaps this happened as a result of my Judaism and Zionism being constantly challenged as a result of my position at York, and there were plenty of challenges. Or, maybe it happened because I saw the different ways that Jewish life manifested itself on campus, both officially and unofficially.

Maybe it was because, rather than having Judaism thrust on me as it sometimes felt like it was at Jewish day school, York gave me the opportunity to decide, independently, what kind of a Jew I wanted to be. Once I found out how many outlets there were for that exploration, whether through the Zionist, religious, cultural or academic aspects of Judaism, my passion for Judaism and the Jewish community took hold.

The Future

Maybe I sound like too much of a cheerleader for York, and maybe you will point out that I did, in fact, graduate from York 8 years ago, and the lay of the land there is different than it once was. To that I will say that maybe you are right. However, maybe you’re wrong.

York won’t go back to shutting down for the High Holidays. However, with a significant Jewish student body that is passionate, that cares, that is engaged, and that is involved, there is undoubtedly the capacity to overlook the conflict, see past the trouble-makers, and make York the campus that it once was and certainly has the potential to become again.

The Exchange: Spotlight on York

Lorne Sossin: The Wellspring of Jewish Life at York
Martin Lockshin: Jewish Life at York University
Daniel Ferman: Jewish Life at York: 2006-2010

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