Kosher Forward for 5780

by | Oct 18, 2019 | Jewish Life at UofT | 0 comments

Written By: Chaim Grafstein

The fall Jewish holidays are always a conflicting time for me on campus. Sometimes professors and staff can be very accommodating; sometimes they can miss the mark a little. Today, I wanted to highlight one positive moment from all the challenges and connect it to a project I am working on this year.

I’m in my third year of my Ph.D., so that means I can finally get some time away from course work for credit, but I found myself auditing a couple classes, nonetheless. The past two years have been a bit of a struggle to get through September and October, but this year, there was an unexpected breath of fresh air. It was the day after Yom Kippur, and I was trying to juggle a grant proposal, my research, and the classes I am auditing. I was sitting in class a few minutes before it started, stressed and frantically checking my email.  In the midst of this, my prof, who is not Jewish, walked in and asked me how Yom Kippur went, and suddenly I was surprised, relieved, and grateful all at once. It might sound like something small, but considering all the hoops I’ve had to jump through over the years, it was pretty great to feel like there was a prof who actually took into consideration my religious anxieties in addition to all the academic ones.

I’ve been on university campuses for a pretty long time, and I’ve faced a lot of challenges around being a Jew, from being told as an undergrad that I can’t join the Middle East Student Association because “[Jews] already have a club” at UofT (AKA: Hillel) to being constantly asked “is Kosher-style okay?” as a well-meaning attempt at accommodation. So, yes, a non-Jewish professor pro-actively asking about my holiday, knowing for sure it was a fast day, feels like a world of difference. He even followed up that he was using a calendar with all religious holidays to be extra accommodating in general!

This experience connects to the kosher food campaign, Kosher Forward, which I am leading along with Sophia Freudenstein. The University of Toronto dining services provides for vegan, gluten-free, Halal, and many other food needs. However, there is no Kosher food on campus. We are asking the University President to develop solutions to provide kosher food for students at UofT. Not everyone on campus is like this prof who went out of their way to be accommodating to me, but not everyone is trying to be difficult either – it’s mostly a challenge of folks just not knowing enough. I attended a dinner at the multi-faith centre a couple weeks back, and in speaking to some students from different religious groups on campus, most people just don’t know much about what Jewish life is like on campus. One of my peers even guessed that there had to be around 10,000 Jews in undergrad at UofT! When I explained that there were likely closer to 1000-1500, they were shocked, after all, they had around 1000 members in their campus group!

The Kosher Forward campaign stirs up a lot of hope for Jewish students at UofT. Every bit of accessibility we gain will be one less challenge to face on campus as a Jewish student. I’m hoping that this is just one step forward in building a better Jewish communal life on campus in the new year!

Mo‘adim LeSimcḥa!

Parshat Vayeshev

Parshat Vayeshev

In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, Jacob’s familial conflicts continue in future generations with the stories of Joseph and Tamar. For Joseph, this is a sequence of seemingly disastrous events through which G-d’s favor continues to protect him. Of Jacob’s thirteen children, Joseph was his most cherished, and he makes this quite clear to his other sons. Between this and Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams that seem to show him ruling over his brothers, they grow increasingly jealous and wary of him, eventually leading to them selling him for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph continues to be favored by G-d in Egypt and is successful both in the household where he works and even after being thrown into prison, falsely accused by his master’s wife after he rejects her advances. In prison, he continues interpreting dreams including that of the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, and asks him to speak favorably to the Pharaoh after being freed from prison. While Joseph faces continued struggles in this parsha from both his family and community, his hard work and service to those around him is rewarded by G-d even as he is met with ongoing injustices.

The secondary narrative of Vayeshev is of Tamar, Jacob’s grand-daughter in law, who also receives a series of familial catastrophes. Tamar is the wife of Er, son of Judah, son of Jacob. When Er dies, and leaves Tamar childless, the proper protocol of yibbum, where a brother-in-law is meant to marry the wife of his deceased brother, is not carried out by Judah’s son Onan. Therefore G-d kills Onan as well. Fearing the death of his third son, Shelah, Judah delays the possibility of Tamar’s marriage to him, and she is left in limbo for years. Without anyone to marry Tamar and provide her with the expected familial and socioeconomic support she should be entitled to, she is stuck as a childless widow and unable to move on. With this in mind, she takes action by carrying out a deception of Judah to become pregnant by him, posing as a sex worker and disguising herself with a veil. When it becomes clear she is pregnant, the townspeople, including Judah, label her a harlot and call for her death until she proves that Judah was the father and that he refused her the proper marriage to Shelah. Tamar’s endeavors lead to her birthing twins, successfully reasserting her lineage and status, and her deception is praised, both outspokenly by Judah and implicitly by the text, when it is revealed that she is “righteous” and not a “harlot”. 

This week’s parsha is centered around justice and accountability. In a world where women have little agency and recourse over their socioeconomic status or family status, where men can be legally enslaved and imprisoned without trial, where the voices of the powerful are taken more seriously than the words of the oppressed, Tamar and Joseph act resourcefully and with G-d’s favor are able to seek a better outcome for themselves despite the extremely difficult situations that they find themselves in. We too can be inspired by Tamar and Joseph’s courage in our daily lives as we face systems of oppression or work as allies – for women’s rights, anti-carceral justice, anti-poverty work, an end to family violence and more. And we can also learn from Judah’s ability to admit when he was wrong, recanting his callous words against her and praising Tamar for her righteousness, as a tzaddikah. The ability to do better, to learn and grow, and to support our communities is always available to us, no matter what point we are coming from. Parsha Vayeshev may show some of the worst traits of familial rivalry and letdowns, but it also provides us with exceptionally courageous figures we can look to.

Written by Nelson Morgan

My Four Years at Hillel

My Four Years at Hillel

One of my first memories as a UofT student was attending the annual Clubs Fair during Orientation Week. I knew UofT was a big school, but Clubs Fair showed me just how big it really was. All of Front Campus (UofT’s giant greenspace) was filled with representatives of every club you can possibly imagine eagerly trying to recruit nervous first years like me. I didn’t know where to start. As a Jewish high school graduate, I heard of Hillel and thought that it would be a good table to approach first.

Little did I know that my decision that day to take some free swag and add my name to a list would lead me to the warm and welcoming community that is Hillel UofT. Over the years, I joined the Frosh Committee, became a Hillel Student Leader, learned more about Judaism and Israel, and attended Shabbat dinners. I hosted a Lunch & Learn, facilitated an event with a bestselling author, took a day trip to Ottawa to eat lunch with the President of Israel, and ate countless Allen’s Table kosher dinners! Although these experiences were all really memorable, my favourite part of Hillel is actually not a formal event. My favourite part of Hillel was being able to walk into the Wolfond Centre at any time of day and immediately have someone to say hi to. On a campus as big as UofT, knowing that there was a place with friendly people (and lots of free food) who could listen to my complaints about my schoolwork made my time at UofT a lot better.

Like everything else, the pandemic has caused my Hillel experience in the past year to be very different, but Hillel’s warm and welcoming environment endured. Whether it was physically distanced hangouts in the park, weekly Talmud & Tea classes on Zoom, listening to interesting speakers, or just catching with our awesome Hillel staff, I was able to feel a part of the Hillel community even during these difficult times.

At UofT, your university experience ends exactly where it starts: on Front Campus. Twice a year, back when I would attend classes in person, I would see the giant white convocation tent that took up almost half the field. Although I am definitely sad that I won’t be at a ceremony in Convocation Hall and I’ll never get to see the inside of that tent, I am truly grateful for the university experience that I did get to have and for me, that experience would truly not have been the same if it wasn’t for Hillel.

  • David Polisuk, Hillel UofT
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