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

Something New

Something New

The fall post-holiday period is always a good time for launching new things. To the extent we’re not completely exhausted, our five-day work weeks are back (instead of five days of work crammed into three-day weeks), and we’re able to get into something of a rhythm and build momentum in moving toward specific goals.

Adding to the sense of newness and adventure, the third post-holidays Torah portion of Lekh Lekha, which was read this past Shabbat, begins with Abraham receiving divine instructions to leave his home and begin a journey to a new land.  Commentators highlight the uncertainty inherent in the command’s wording: instead of being directed to a specific place, Abraham, at least initially, is told to go “to the land that I will show you,” a vague and undisclosed destination. While he is promised blessings galore for his obedience, setting out requires an element of faith and quite a bit of trust as he leaves his home land and father’s house for somewhere new.

While it’s certainly several orders of magnitude smaller than the journey Abraham undertook, Hillel Ontario is trying something new this week: we’re introducing a new section to our regular newsletters and will be including a d’var Torah to showcase our students’ and staff’s skills and present our readers with a bit of Jewish learning. We hope you’ll find these commentaries inspiring and meaningful and that they’ll provide a glimpse of the Hillel Ontario community that spans our nine campuses.

A Message from Hillel Ontario’s Student Presidents

A Message from Hillel Ontario’s Student Presidents

Dear students, parents, supporters, and other members of the Ontario Jewish community,

We are writing to you as the Hillel presidents representing nine universities across Ontario. 

We are often asked what it’s like to be a Jewish student on campus. And, in previous years, we would have taken a more upbeat approach to answering that question. The truth is that things have changed over the past 5 months.

Prior to this spring’s war in Israel, we had never experienced the level of vitriol and backlash that we did recently. We were caught off guard. Many Jewish students lost friendships and severed connections that had been created over many years. Our mental health was stretched to the limit; we have felt burnt out, isolated and anxious.  Even now, with autumn upon us, we are still feeling the exhausting effects of a summer spent advocating for the well-being of our fellow Jewish students. 

Walking back onto campus this week, it was difficult to see some students obviously (and understandably) anxious – both because of the pandemic, and because of the antisemitism Jewish students have experienced over the past several months. At the same time, we also feel more empowered than ever to proclaim pride in our Jewish identity, bolstered by the tremendous support we have felt from across the community.  

Whether you are a first year student, a parent, a sibling, an alum, or simply a member of the community concerned about what seems like an endless barrage of attacks aimed at Jewish students on campus, we want to assure you that as Hillel presidents, we are deeply committed to our roles and responsibilities. We hear your concerns. And, we are proud to serve the current and future Jewish students we support.  

We are working to build relationships with student governments, clubs, interfaith groups, faculty, and administrators on each of our campuses. We continue to empower our peers to learn, to educate, and to advocate for the issues close to our hearts. And, we continue to provide a safe and welcoming community for Jewish students, both on and off campus. 

We also seek to increase resources and staff available to our students so that no one feels unsupported or ill-prepared. We want Jewish students to feel like they can be their entire selves without having to hide a Magen David or avoid conversations about Judaism, Zionism or Israel. 

As we move into a new Jewish year and a new school year, we wish we could say with more certainty exactly what is to come in the next few months. However, it would be naive to do so. Instead, we would like to take this opportunity to commit to you that we will continue to have challenging, but necessary, dialogue with allies across campus. We will continue to support our peers when they feel uncomfortable. And, we will continue to ask for help when we need it. 

Time and time again, our collective history has proven that in a proud, empowered, and united community there is strength, and that from one another we can draw resilience. 

L’shana Haba on quieter, more inclusive campuses. 

Ariel Oren, Guelph Hillel
Evan Kanter, Hillel Student Leader Representative, Hillel UofT
Nathaniel Katz, Queen’s Hillel
Shira Miller, Hillel Laurier
Danielle Lebowitz, Hillel Waterloo
Hannah Silverman, McMaster Hillel
Jordan Goldenberg, Hillel Ryerson
Isabel Borisov, Western Hillel
Nicole Bodenstein, York Hillel

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