Saying Yes

by | Nov 1, 2020 | Hillel Ontario, News

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

Jews of India

Jews of India

On January 28th, I was proud to host a panel discussion on the history and culture of the Jewish communities of India with 40 guests and about 80 listeners. I was inspired to put the program together by the thoughtful Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Bukhari and yes, Indian Jews on social media who advocate for their community’s representation within large Jewish institutions. 

For most of my life, ‘Jewish cultural programming’ has been synonymous with either Ashkenazi or Israeli culture, to the detriment of my understanding of our people’s beautiful diversity. Working at the University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre, I realized I could use the platform I was responsible for to uplift these lesser-heard Jewish voices. I settled on Indian Jewry, as opposed to Ethiopian or Bukhari or Kai Feng Jews, out of interest in the origin story of their people: a ship fleeing war in Judea wrecks off the coast of Mumbai, where a dozen survivors reconstitute their culture in a strange land, isolated from world Jewry for hundreds of years.

We had four speakers. Dr Shalva Weil, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Ann Samson, a historian and leader of Toronto’s Indian-Jewish synagogue; Judith Dworkin, an Indian Jewish educator raised in Toronto’s Indian-Jewish community and Director of McMaster Hillel; and Anna Rajagopal, a young Indian Jewish writer and activist from the United States, who is a prominent social media personality for Jews of Colour. 

The program was phenomenal. We had nearly 100 guests, and many questions for our speakers. All of the speakers enjoyed their time and are eager to come back for any future programs. It was equal parts fascinating and touching to hear these four people describe their relationships with ashkenormativity, diaspora, and most importantly, their own culture.

Jacob Kates Rose, Hillel UofT

A Hillel Staff’s Perspective

A Hillel Staff’s Perspective

Students have had a very different academic year. One that they have never experienced before. There has been isolation, lack of extracurricular activities and little to no in-person contact. In a recent McMaster Hillel student executive meeting on zoom, I said “we are in the business of community so we need to think creatively about what it feels like to be part of this community. ” How does one do this in a pandemic, when campus is closed and when we don’t see each other at all? How do we know how each of us are doing? Are we alone? Are we lonely? Are we coping? Do we bring our best selves to a Zoom and then grapple alone with our worries? These are the questions that I struggle with when trying to support a community despite the challenges that exist for us. 

From the beginning, Hillel pulled out all the pandemic stops to connect with students. Shabbat in a box and delivered to you? Yes! Zoom games night? Yes! Mental health and wellness box? Sign up here! We have you covered. These programs and services were created to keep our community together while at our own homes. We are able to connect through a screen and eat dinner, not together, but knowing that there were over 70 students enjoying the same meal in the comfort of their own homes as well. And we connected face to face over Zoom before and after, while enjoying our rugelach, of course!

All of these programs are great, but the individual connections are even more paramount. A text to a student to check in, a happy birthday wish on their special day or an unfortunate condolence call for those who have lost loved ones. For me, it’s putting in the extra effort to make a student feel special and finding ways to do this. Does the student have dietary needs that we can fulfill and can we make this student feel seen in making a special box for them? Did a student forget to sign up for Shabbat but do we have an extra meal for them anyway? Can we put an extra dessert in a bag, just because we know that student had a tough week? Even though we are in Hamilton, can we make an extra effort so our Toronto or out-of-province students also feel a part of our community and send them mailings and deliveries so that they feel part of our programming? Having inclusive programming is a cornerstone of Hillel’s mandate. In a pandemic, even more so. 

I miss seeing the students. I miss hanging out in the Hillel office and chatting over a bagel and cracking jokes over the lineup at the toaster. I miss bumping into students on campus, catching up on their lives, and being part of a place where they come for comfort and support (and food!).    With all the programming and outreach we have done in the past 10 months, I hope that we can continue to maintain our virtual community. That even though we are not in person, our students know we are still here for them. While the medium may have changed, the sentiment certainly has not.

 

 

 

 


Judith Dworkin,
Director, McMaster Hillel

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