This last year has been anything but predictable. When our 2020-2021 fiscal year began last July, the world was just in the process of grappling with what a long-term game plan would look like to weather the COVID storm that didn’t appear to be clearing any time soon (despite our compliance with stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions). We were surrounded by so much uncertainty:
- Where would our students physically be once the academic year began?
- With about 30% less staff, how could we successfully reach our students?
- Without being able to meet in person, how would we engage our students in a meaningful way and hold their attention?
- Were our donors going to continue to support us?
- Were our largest funding agencies going to come through with their annual contributions?
- What was the future going to look like, and how much more disruption would we have to navigate?
All of these questions felt daunting as we worked to answer how the unforeseeable and unfamiliar constraints of this pandemic were going to change our work and potentially compromise our ability to survive and deliver on our mission.
The COVID-19 pandemic was not the kind of challenge you could side-step or avoid if you just looked in a different direction. No amount of pivoting could get us out of having to deal with a crisis that loomed this large. Everywhere we looked, we were confronted with the reality that the only way out of the crisis was to charge through it – and that’s exactly what we did.
Given all the uncertainty, we had to pare down our organizational structure, scaling back our staffing levels to the lowest they had been in three years. Simultaneously, we had the challenge of providing support to address the explosion of mental health needs among our students created and exacerbated by the social isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic. With their uniquely scrappy approach to problem solving and their tenaciously innovative mindset, our exceptional staff rose to the challenge, working meaner despite being leaner. Our leadership team pioneered a cluster staffing model that allowed us to leverage our limited human resources across multiple campuses simultaneously and brought our students some of the best and brightest talent from across the province despite the distance between our campuses. As our staff will attest, we were forced to develop new strategies, learn new skills, and innovate in ways that will benefit us for many years to come.
The importance of that innovation cannot be overstated, as much of what we did this year felt urgent and the consequences potentially dire. With such uncertainty around how the year would turn out, so much of our energy was focused on simply not letting our students down and ensuring they were safe and supported. Similarly, the fact that our staff were working remotely, and in many cases having to balance childcare, along with many of our staff carrying more responsibilities than previous years due to our staffing reductions meant that much of our attention was on ensuring our staff were supported and appreciated. Unsure of how our engagement work would be impacted, how our donor network would fare, and what toll the year would take on our staff, Marc and his team developed timely and realistic goals for our organization that were tailor-made for this pandemic year to ensure we focused on the right things to help us manage through the pandemic and arrive on the other side ready to scale again.
As we neared the end of the academic year, however, the conflict in Israel delivered our organization another significant challenge. This distant conflict sent shockwaves through our local community and all of our campuses. It has left many of our students feeling isolated and vulnerable as they have grappled with a surge of global antisemitism that has given rise to violent acts and insidious rhetoric on campuses across Ontario. Despite having been under considerable strain all year long due to the pandemic, our staff and student leadership rolled up their sleeves over the last few weeks to once again ensure that our students across Ontario were supported and empowered. We have been at the forefront of campus advocacy efforts, building on our established relationships with campus student groups, university administrations, and community partners to address the rapidly evolving hate-filled atmosphere on our campuses. While we have made important progress on this front, it is clear that our work is never done and will continue in earnest into the new academic year as students hopefully return to in-person learning and campus-based extracurriculars once again.
A year that began in the midst of a global pandemic and was capped off by a sharp spike in antisemitism on campus has tested our resolve and challenged us in previously unimaginable ways. What has become undeniably clear, however, is the ongoing importance of our work – not just at moments of crisis, but during the quiet times, as well. From Shabbat and holiday celebrations to Israel advocacy training, from Jewish learning fellowships to leadership development and community service opportunities, we are strengthening the Jewish identity of Ontario’s university students and their commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel. Our ability to weather the storms of this year was a direct result of the vital work we have been doing since Hillel Ontario was created six years ago, the product of our staff and student leadership’s tireless efforts, each and every day, year after year, to build a more vibrant Jewish campus life and a resilience in each of our students no matter what obstacles we encounter.
This year has shown us that our mission is more relevant than ever. Our commitment to supporting our students and their well-being has never been more important. As we emerge from this pandemic and continue to work through the antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiments on campus, we will be focused on rebuilding our team of professionals, growing our donor base, and strengthening our relationships with key stakeholders in the community so that we can continue enriching the lives of Ontario Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish community, Israel and the world.
Chair, Hillel Ontario Board of Directors