Students Are Our Inspiration

by | Jul 24, 2020 | Jewish Life at Western | 0 comments

Every university student has probably asked themselves the very question Natalie and Naomi found themselves asking when the pandemic started: “What can I do with my time, and how can I make it meaningful?”

Both students looked forward to their original, exciting summer plans. After attending Camp Ramah off and on for 10 years, Natalie was finally looking forward to stepping into a head staff position, while Naomi’s love for Israel was going to bring her back to begin a 12-week internship at the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Sadly, neither of their summers would turn out to be the one they had anticipated.

The news about COVID-19 unfolded quickly in March. “That night, I was writing an exam, walked out, and got an email that class isn’t going to be in person anymore” Naomi remembered, recalling her last night on campus. 

“The progression [of coronavirus] and the quick reaction of closures from universities was surreal,” Natalie added. Even in the moment, both understood and agreed with these decisions, concluding that “it had to be done.”

Instinctually, as best friends do, Naomi called Natalie that night to figure out what they’d do next. Having previously volunteered in the community through volunteering at telethons and fundraisers, they quickly went looking for ways they could serve others during the pandemic. With Passover quickly approaching, they joined UJA’s The Global Seder, and dedicated a day to packing kosher food needed to make a Passover seder possible for families in need around the GTA.

To their surprise, they found more of their friends from Western Hillel volunteering, along with many new faces. Natalie took special notice of how everyone was “genuinely happy to be outside and helping.” The feeling was so upbeat and positive that a fellow volunteer led a physically distanced yoga session for everyone in between shifts. It’s meaningful interactions like these that have helped some students get through this a gloomy time. 

Both Natalie and Naomi have found Jewish community and support through Hillel, even off-campus. Even though many of Hillel’s regular programming had to be adapted or canceled, “Hillel has been very good and has still found a way to help us” by bringing similar volunteering opportunities and staying focused on making meaningful community interactions online. “I’ve been making challah at home every Friday only because Leora posts and sends me the recipe,” added Natalie.

At Hillel, students are the inspiration and motivation for innovative programming, as this experience has illuminated. Although this summer couldn’t be filled with summer camp, shopping with friends, carnival games at the Ex, and traveling abroad, university students are continuously looking for meaningful experiences and interactions. While students continue to fill their spare time with reading, cooking, and for some, planning summer camp activities for their younger siblings, Hillel is hard at work planning programming for a year full of new ways to engage, build community and empower students to become strong Jewish leaders. “Even though I won’t be [at Western], I’ve gotten updates about next year and it makes me excited,” Natalie commented.

Looking to the fall, Natalie will be heading to Queen’s for medical school, and Naomi is preparing for her next year at Western. For now, they continue to build on their volunteerism and enjoy dedicating their time to helping those in need.

Thank You Western Hillel

Thank You Western Hillel

Since I first arrived at Western as a nervous and excited first year student, I was in awe of what Hillel was able to do for Jewish students on campus. From the welcome back barbecue, to the wide array of speakers brought in throughout the year, I felt that Hillel did a great job at engaging Jewish students. I was eager to get involved with Hillel, applied for a position as a first year executive, and the following year, applied for VP Jewish life. During those two years, I saw the great potential this organization had for programming, education, and engagement, and did my best to share Hillel’s mission with as many of my peers as possible. However it wasn’t until last March when I was elected president that I was able to truly see the incredible impact Hillel has on Western’s students.

Looking back on this year, I am blown away by what our organization has been able to achieve in the seemingly short time since September. We began our year with a strong focus on easing the first years’ transition into university life. After move-in day, dedicated student leaders showed up in every residence hall with packages containing food, drinks, and other items to help the first year students get settled. First semester passed in a whirlwind of new Hillel programming, including our group workout classes (Shvitz with Hillel), our monthly challah bakes and sales whose proceeds went to supporting the London Jewish community, (Bake a Change), and many brand new Holiday-focused programs that brought the comfort of the high holidays at home to London, Ontario. One event highlight was our first ever Hillel coffee house where students had the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of an audience. Our Shabbat across London—where students had the opportunity to host others at their home for Shabbat dinner—was also a huge success, thanks to the hard work of our student leaders. Second semester brought with it lots of interesting programs, including a full Holocaust education week featuring a live testimony from a Holocaust survivor in front of over 200 students. I was, and still am, so impressed with the effort the Hillel leadership has put into the programming this year, and I can’t wait to see all the amazing things they will continue to achieve in the future!

I am so grateful to the rest of the Hillel executive team as well as the staff, who sat through countless meetings to ensure that we succeeded in our mission of supporting every Jewish student at Western. I hope that over this year I was able to leave my mark on Hillel, and that each person who attended any of our events or participated in our programs left feeling that there were people on campus looking out for them. My goal this year was to share Hillel’s message with as many people as possible. I wanted the rest of the students to benefit as much from what Hillel has to offer as I have over my three years at Western. I hope that in the future, Hillel continues to expand its reach to more and more students, and can bring that feeling of comfort and belonging to the entire Western Jewish community.

Written by: Natalie Urbach

My Mental Health Story

My Mental Health Story

by Natalie Cheifetz

I remember my first day at Western University and the overwhelming fear I felt being surrounded by so many amazing people. I went through so many phases where all I did was wake up, read, go to class, read, and go to sleep. It was so easy to compare myself to other students and feel that because I was not smart enough, I had to work harder just to keep up. This cycle of working so hard, not getting the grades I wanted, then working even harder, ate me up inside. On the outside, I was trying to do it all with a huge smile across my face. It was so easy to put these negative thoughts down deep in the back of my mind until the end of the day when they all at once would come out.

University is one of those places where not being able to cope isn’t talked about. It’s so hard to find a place where I can openly talk about mental health or find the support that I need. The stigma still exists and often places barriers in front of students who are trying to seek mental health support. There is no x-ray or blood test that proves someone is struggling with their mental health. You cannot see my anxiety. I cannot prove that I have anxiety, but it still impacts every aspect of my life from my social life to my education.

It took a lot of courage for me to come to my first Western Hillel event, but it has truly changed my life. During my first coffee meeting with Leora, I remember her asking what I wanted from my experience at Hillel and I said, “a community”. I needed that community feeling that I had from my synagogue in Mississauga, when you walk into a room and you feel like you are meant to be there. I get this feeling every time I walk into an event at Hillel and see my group of friends sitting there. What Western Hillel has taught me is that there is always time to take a break. I still get nervous every time I walk through the Hillel doors. I find it hard to meet new people and to be sociable all the time. But when I finally get inside, I am truly able to be myself. Not only is it a community that I would consider myself a part of, I consider it to be my family.

It’s not fair to expect us to all be “on” all the time. It’s okay to take a day off and take breaks throughout the day. Everyone has their own ways to cope with the everyday stressors and it’s important that in University we are able to find what works best for us. When I am stressed, I walk by University Hospital and imagine one day being able to work in a hospital. This action of simply walking often grounds me and helps make the bad days a little shorter and the good days a little longer.

Through my role as Ruderman Inclusion Ambassador, I am working on making Western Hillel more inclusive for students with disabilities on our campus. From personal experience, I know that it may be hard to reach out and come to one of our events. But once you do, you won’t regret it. If you need someone to reach out to please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you need an event buddy, a walk buddy, or want to go out for coffee, I am here for you. Lastly, for anyone struggling with mental health, I want to say that your experiences are valid!