What Hillel and Holocaust Education Week Mean to Me

by | Nov 23, 2019 | Jewish Life at UofT | 0 comments

Written By: Rachel Cohen

My name is Rachel Cohen and I’m a Hillel Student Leader in my fourth year of study at the University of Toronto. I’ve been involved with Hillel since I was in first year, and have loved being a part of their leadership structure. It’s given me the ability to take part in the planning processes of events such as Model Knesset with Israeli students, orientation week festivities and volunteering with other organizations, such as The House. Last year I hosted a panel discussion at Hart House entitled the Rise of White Supremacy and Hate Groups in Canada. It was a stellar evening, as we heard from five distinguished panelists and continued the interesting discussion, even after the event came to a close.

Planning educational talks has been one of my favourite parts of being involved in Hillel’s leadership structure. It promotes an open dialogue of difficult topics in a safe and dynamic environment. When Rabbi Julia Appel came to me at the beginning of this schoolyear with the idea of executing an event centred around Holocaust education, I was thrilled.

Over the course of three months this fall, the project took flight. The event was to be centred around Daniel Panneton, the Programs and Education Assistant at the Sarah & Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and the curator of The Paradox: Free Speech and Holocaust Denial in Canada. As an emerging historian, Daniel planned to discuss, “Holocaust Denial in Post Truth Era.”

We recently observed the 39th Annual Holocaust Education Week at the beginning of November. This year the theme of Sarah & Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s week at the beginning of november was, “Here and Now.” Multidisciplinary programming throughout the GTA illuminated the relevance of Holocaust education to Canadians as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. It was both timely and necessary to have these discussions and to examine these atrocities.

We planned the event as part of an extended Holocaust Education Week to remember the six million Jews who perished. The event was personal to all of us—it was personal to me. In a reflection I wrote after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, just over a year ago, I said this:

“I’m proud of my 95-year-old grandmother, Ruth Cohen, who sailed to North America in 1930 and created a new life in Montreal. I’m also proud of my family who remained in Radomsko, Poland. They died at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau. While my grandmother was lining up for primary school, my ancestors were lining up for the gas chambers.”

My grandmother left Poland long before the war, but her aunts and cousins stayed. As a descendent of victims of the Holocaust, I’m thankful to have a voice and platform such as Hillel, to honour their memory.

On November 19th, 2019, the event was held at the Wolfond Centre. Due to the time of year, students were stacked with assignments, so I was concerned (as always), about numbers, but the audience turnout was perfect. About fifty students, staff and community members attended the evening.

Holocaust memory is at a turning point. At a time when the last survivors are passing away, anti-Semitism and intolerance are rising at home and abroad. We face an anxious future without the presence of survivors to remind us of the past. So, throughout the event, we considered the questions:

  • How is Holocaust memory changing in this context?
  • What can we do to prevent the spread of hatred and Holocaust denial?
  • Seventy-five years later, why should Canadians, especially young Canadians, learn about the Holocaust? Two generations later, why does it still matter?

With the help of Hillel staff members and students, as well as my friends who are allies of the Jewish community on campus, the event went off without a hitch. Daniel’s presentation was both interesting and thought provoking, as it sparked a lively discussion over the dessert reception post-event.

In the aftermath, as the dust settled and newly appointed Senior Director, Rob Nagus and I cleaned up— I couldn’t help but think how lucky I am to have such great support from my peers and mentors on campus. While the event was based around educating others, I feel as though I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have learned so much in the process of designing these projects. This is knowledge that I will hold with me even after I (sadly) leave Hillel and the university this coming spring.

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario welcomes University of Toronto’s recent launch of a new Anti-Semitism Working Group. The Working Group will review programming, activities, processes, and practices in place at the University of Toronto’s three campuses and develop recommendations to support the University’s response to antisemitism.

“The establishment of a working group focused on antisemitism is a much-needed measure for the University of Toronto,” said Rob Nagus, Senior Director, Hillel UofT. “Too often, Jewish students who have faced antisemitism on campus have felt that their serious concerns around anti-Jewish hate were dismissed. Given the positive impact of recent anti-racism initiatives on the campus community, it is incumbent on our institutions to also address the unique challenges inherent to combating antisemitism.”

“Across the nine campuses we serve, Hillel Ontario is committed to working with all university administrations to champion the voices of Jewish students,” said Marc Newburgh, CEO, Hillel Ontario. “We look forward to supporting the work of the University of Toronto by ensuring these voices are heard and acknowledged. Doing so will help the Working Group better understand how contemporary antisemitism manifests on campus.”

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

I love the holiday of Sukkot and look forward to it every year. While often overshadowed by the High Holy Days, I find that it offers us a chance to relax after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a week, we are invited to enjoy the outdoors, to celebrate abundance, and to express gratitude (going back to the holiday’s roots as a celebration of a successful harvest season). 

Yet, accessing the joy, the gratitude, and the togetherness of Sukkot seemed almost impossible given the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the fact that we as a Hillel community remain scattered across the GTA (and beyond!), spending most of our days connecting only virtually. 

At the same time, perhaps the most important word of our season has been “wellness.” We, students and staff, have been particularly attuned to the need to care for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. To state the obvious, it’s a tough time. As a Hillel community, we knew we had to try to meet the moment. 

Students from York, Ryerson and UofT gathered to brainstorm together: What did they need most right now? What did their friends, classmates, and peers need? How could we find a way to both celebrate Sukkot and care for ourselves across virtual time and space? 

What emerged was Sukkot Wellness Week, a menu of experiences that spanned the week of Sukkot, offering multiple ways to mindfully care for ourselves and each other.

First, there was a daily instagram prompt, alternating between thoughtful and silly questions about Sukkot, inviting students to think about their favourite fall comfort foods, Sukkah decorations, and what special guests they would welcome into their metaphorical (or actual) Sukkah. 

Second, we offered a different experience each day, focused on a different area of wellness.

  • Spiritual: on Tuesday, students joined me in learning Jewish texts related to the deep connections between Sukkot and wellness.
  • Mental: on Wednesday, students hosted a Wellness Wednesday check-in, a preview of what we hope will be a regular fixture in our Hillel calendar. 
  • Physical: On Thursday, a student prepared a meditation to offer us a chance to breathe and to pay attention to how we were feeling in our bodies. 
  • Emotional: On Friday, a student led trivia and other games as a way to destress from the week. Much laughter ensued.

By design, there was something for everyone. More importantly, Sukkot Wellness Week set the stage for an ongoing conversation about how we care for our full selves, and how this is deeply grounded in what it means to live Jewishly. Our work is far from over, and while Sukkot only lasts a week, it’s themes can help power us through the year ahead. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Senior Jewish Educator

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