In Memory of my Teacher, Mentor and Role Model

by | Nov 13, 2020 | Hillel Ontario | 0 comments

Written by Rabbi Aaron Greenberg

I am sure many of you by now have heard of the tragic passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I have no doubt you have read about how he was a beacon  of morality to humanity, a confidante to state and religious leaders across the entire world. Perhaps you also read that his lectures, speeches, books and articles are filled with wisdom, brilliance and sophistication. While all that is true, I want to tell you about my personal interactions with him. 

I was first introduced to Rabbi Sacks’s writings twenty years ago, and I began purchasing each book he published the moment it was available. I was an avid reader of his books and articles, and I yearned to meet with him and engage him in conversation. This opportunity finally arrived in November of 2011. Hillel was co-partnering on a program to have the Chief Rabbi engage in conversation with one of the most well known Canadian intellectuals of the time, Prof Charles Taylor. 

Prior to the start of the event, I was pacing the halls of the theatre when I noticed the Chief Rabbi standing on the side alone! I found myself drawn to where he was standing, knowing full well that this could be the pivotal moment when I would finally be able to engage with my mentor, who was larger than life. Those of you that know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words, but I could not get out more than a pathetic whimper of “shalom”. The rabbi, sensing my nerves, asked me a series of questions and was excited to learn that I worked with students on campus as part of the OU-JLIC, a program that partners with Hillel. Finally, after a few moments, I asked him for some wisdom about working with students, and he looked at me with his piercing but loving eyes and said,  

‘You must make Torah Judaism relevant, meaningful, and real. Judaism is an ancient religion with modern and profound lessons. This needs to be taught and modeled. Be a proud Jew, be truthful to it but be humble to always learn from others. Be happy and smile. People will smile back.” 

Of course, he said it with more profundity and his very elegant British accent, but the message to me was crystal clear. I had a mission from which I dare not deviate, no matter what challenges awaited. Fast forward four and a half years. His office insisted he meet with the president of the university that morning and deliver a lecture to York faculty, but the highlight (his word, not mine) was to address students in the Zac Kaye Hillel lounge at York University to a packed crowd.  His message to the students was the message that he had told me years prior: that they should never stop learning and growing as Jews and as citizens of the world and to hearken (yes, he actually used that word) to the moral voice of the Jewish tradition. 

Rabbi Sacks had much more to accomplish. His website indicates numerous projects that he had initiated that are unfinished and in progress. It is our duty as his students, his moral heirs, to continue living by his creed, to continue to make Judaism relevant and meaningful. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife Lady Elaine, his children Joshua, Dina and Gila and his entire family at this difficult time. May we come together during these challenging times and become stronger, prouder and more committed Jews to truly honor his memory and continue his legacy.

“Wars are won with weapons but it takes ideas to win at peace” 

“Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.” 

“Morality can no longer be predicated on the state, for we have become too diverse to allow a single morality to be legislated. Nor can it be located in the individual, for morality cannot be private in this way. We have neglected the third domain: that of community.”

Here is one of his most thoughtful videos: Why I am a Jew? 

Press Release: Hillel Ontario Condemns UofT UTSC BDS

Press Release: Hillel Ontario Condemns UofT UTSC BDS

At its Annual General Meeting last night, the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) sent a clear message to Jewish students: You are not welcome here. In a motion that reaffirms the Union’s commitment to the antisemitic BDS movement, the SCSU singled out and condemned a former executive for “displaying an Israeli flag,” and resolved not to partner with organizations that normalize Israel. The motion further resolved that future elected representatives and staff would be formally required to endorse BDS.

The SCSU then rejected an amendment to the motion proposed by Jewish students that would prevent the Union from boycotting the Jewish clubs on campus.

In response, Rob Nagus, Senior Director of Hillel UofT issued the following:

Last night’s conduct by the SCSU violated the University of Toronto’s Statement on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination and harassment based on creed, ethnic origin, and citizenship. Hillel has long voiced its serious concerns with the impacts of the BDS movement on the Scarborough Campus. This latest attempt to boycott and exclude Jewish students and organizations from campus life must be named and challenged.

Hillel is calling on the University of Toronto to demonstrate its commitment to the values reflected by its policies, including its recent Statement on Antisemitism and Racism, by issuing a condemnation and rejection of the SCSU’s motion, and taking the necessary steps required to ensure Jewish student life is protected on campus.

For more information, please contact:
Rob Nagus,
Senior Director of Hillel UofT
Hillel Ontario
rob.nagus@hillelontario.org  |  647.638.1749

Saying Yes

Saying Yes

I hate the word “no”.

Which is why I always start the school year with a values exercise with Hillel Ontario’s Strategy Team that underscores the importance of saying “yes”. We believe that everything is possible. So, when two of my staff came to me in the summer, mid-frantic planning for what we believed was going to be an exclusively virtual school year and said we needed a “student portal”, I said yes. Let’s do that.

Though, I actually really didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I trust that most of my staff are much smarter than me so I asked them what they needed to make that happen. They shared that we needed something like the newly launched virtualjcc.com.

With a commitment to approach our pandemic challenges as opportunities, with positivity and possibility, I made a call.

“Hi. Is it possible for you to white-label the code for the virtualjcc.com and sell it to me so I can build something similar for students for Hillel?”

“Why don’t we just leverage our communal resources and collaborate? I’ll give it to you. There’s a huge opportunity here.”

Hillel HQ’s student login page

Finding professional colleagues who think like you, also love to dream BIG, and embrace “yes” is a rare gift. Especially during a pandemic. Meet Andrew Levy, the Executive Director of the Schwartz/Reisman and Prosserman JCCs, with whom we connected two years ago when Hillel Ontario facilitated a community-wide Talent Symposium.

Several conversations, many great ideas and some innovative thinking later, Hillel HQ was born. Within weeks and at a fraction of the cost.

Hillel HQ’s Israel events and opportunities for students across the province

At the start of the pandemic, as we quickly pivoted to online programming for students, our staff identified a need for the students to have a virtual space where all of these opportunities could live. With limited in-person programming, there was a clear need to have a virtual Hillel destination, that was a secure, customized, digital space for thousands of students to access virtual programming and online connectivity. We also knew that the solution needed to be easy to use, engaging, mobile-optimized, and responsive to Gen Z needs.  

Hillel HQ is only in a beta form. We are testing it and getting feedback from 100 students across the province who are acting as early adopters. Though Hillel HQ currently has limited functionality, it will evolve to house everything we are doing on campus (in-person and online), have increased social functionality, curated content based on the students’ individual campuses as well as their attended events, gamification to connect students and build community virtually, and be a huge driver of data mining. We have four subsequent phases of development planned so this is just the beginning!

Hillel HQ’s Shabbat and Holiday events and opportunities for students across the province

Collaborating like this and building on the same platform can give us the opportunity to share the data, connecting students to the JCC and young adults at the JCC to Hillel programming. What would it look like if every Hillel Ontario graduate received a free online JCC membership as a graduation gift? What can we leverage from the data on parents and high school students who are JCC members to connect with incoming Frosh on our campuses?

We are already exploring Hillel-wide virtual Yoga festivals and other fitness opportunities, producing online cooking shows and working together on field reporting from campus.

The possibilities here are endless.

That’s what happens when we say “yes”.

Jaime Walman
Chief Strategy Officer, Hillel Ontario

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