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

Hillel Ontario Communities

Hillel Ontario Communities

While this past year’s virtual settings were confining in some ways, they also provided many new opportunities for student engagement across the province. For one, it dissolved barriers between universities across Ontario, allowing for more productive cross-campus collaboration and amplified community building between students with shared interests or identities. Moreover, with some campuses lacking a critical mass of students with particular backgrounds or passions, cross-campus efforts were especially helpful in overcoming isolation and loneliness.

In part for these reasons, as an extension of its cross-campus leadership programs, Hillel Ontario will be launching Hillel Ontario Communities (HOC’s) for the 2021-2022 academic year. Both well-suited for a virtual environment and effective in in-person settings, each of these groups (or, communities) will bring together between a half dozen and a dozen students from our campuses under the leadership of one or two Hillel Ontario staff people for learning, training, and brainstorming around a specific topic.  In addition, students passionate about that topic will have the opportunity to build relationships with their counterparts on other campuses who share their interests.

In convening these HOC’s, we seek to develop stronger cross-campus communities and relationships, increase cross-campus programs, leverage virtual environments, and provide incubators for student input on Hillel Ontario’s practices and approaches.  Among the topics and identities on which HOC’s will be centred are LGBTQ+ Jews, Mizrachi and Sephardi Students, Programming by and for Jews of Colour, Israeli and Israeli-Canadian Students, students with disabilities, Israel advocacy and programming, social justice and sustainability, and wellness and mental health.

Seth Goren, Chief Education and Campus Officer, Hillel Ontario
Jeremy Starr, Senior Program Director, Hillel UofT

Hillel is a Home Away From Home

Hillel is a Home Away From Home

Even before our oldest daughter, Sarah Springer, joined Queen’s Hillel, Hillel was a big part of our lives.  Jewish students taught our children at Bader Elkin Talmud Torah, attended High Holy Day services at Beth Israel, and participated in joint community programming. Many Kingston families provided students a Jewish ‘home away from home’.

Fast forward to today, we find ourselves ever so grateful that our youth can turn to director Yos and educator Leora Tarshish – in both good and bad times – to find their ‘home’ at Queen’s Hillel. As parents, we have seen how welcoming and caring Yos and Leora are, providing strong leadership, intelligence and insight to Jewish students.  They exude enthusiasm and rare humility, taking great pride in watching their young leaders blossom.  Particularly during this pandemic, while many are only at Queen’s virtually, Queen’s Hillel has provided a continued sense of connection to and pride in Judaism and Israel. However, despite phenomenal accomplishments, no one could have been prepared for the heart-wrenching hostilities in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the eruption of propaganda on social media, and the fall-out to Jews around the globe, particularly amongst our youth.  

Specifically at Queen’s, the Queen’s Journal took a hard stance against Zionism, in support of BDS and hijacking student fees to that end. Yos and the Queen’s Hillel executive, including Sarah, co-President Nathaniel Katz, and VP Advocacy Rafi Matchen, were able to respond in real-time, 24/7.  Equally important, they were able to support Jewish students who were feeling ostracized and alone by the online bullying, misinformation, hyperbole, and lack of context, from friends and strangers alike. 

Like most diasporic Jews, we love to visit Israel and pray for peace during its many conflicts. Yet, this fight felt different.  For the first time standing up for Zionism – merely advocating for and underscoring the right to a Jewish homeland – became our children’s fight. Hate against Jewish people is unfortunately not foreign to our children. But targeted hate and friends posting anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment was a new low. 

While they were experiencing this themselves, Yos and Leora remained a rock for the students, a sounding board, and a perfect mix of optimism, pragmatism, and compassion. Michael and I wholeheartedly share these words with great emotion…and with no hyperbole. We feel so incredibly blessed to have the Hillel mishpacha (family) there for our Jewish children at this difficult time, whether it is at Queen’s or at another university or college campus. We also know that the dynamic and talented duo Leora and Yos – and the rest of the Hillel Ontario team – will be there with open arms for all the creative and meaningful times ahead. 

Yes, “Jews in Canoes” really happened during Covid-19! Whether it is paddling through the Cataraqui River or meandering through more challenging waters, we trust that Queen’s Hillel and Hillel Ontario will continue to be a lifeline to our Jewish students.  

Melissa Greenberg & Michael Springer
Parents of Sarah Springer, co-President at Queen’s Hillel

 

 

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