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.

My Four Years at Hillel

My Four Years at Hillel

One of my first memories as a UofT student was attending the annual Clubs Fair during Orientation Week. I knew UofT was a big school, but Clubs Fair showed me just how big it really was. All of Front Campus (UofT’s giant greenspace) was filled with representatives of every club you can possibly imagine eagerly trying to recruit nervous first years like me. I didn’t know where to start. As a Jewish high school graduate, I heard of Hillel and thought that it would be a good table to approach first.

Little did I know that my decision that day to take some free swag and add my name to a list would lead me to the warm and welcoming community that is Hillel UofT. Over the years, I joined the Frosh Committee, became a Hillel Student Leader, learned more about Judaism and Israel, and attended Shabbat dinners. I hosted a Lunch & Learn, facilitated an event with a bestselling author, took a day trip to Ottawa to eat lunch with the President of Israel, and ate countless Allen’s Table kosher dinners! Although these experiences were all really memorable, my favourite part of Hillel is actually not a formal event. My favourite part of Hillel was being able to walk into the Wolfond Centre at any time of day and immediately have someone to say hi to. On a campus as big as UofT, knowing that there was a place with friendly people (and lots of free food) who could listen to my complaints about my schoolwork made my time at UofT a lot better.

Like everything else, the pandemic has caused my Hillel experience in the past year to be very different, but Hillel’s warm and welcoming environment endured. Whether it was physically distanced hangouts in the park, weekly Talmud & Tea classes on Zoom, listening to interesting speakers, or just catching with our awesome Hillel staff, I was able to feel a part of the Hillel community even during these difficult times.

At UofT, your university experience ends exactly where it starts: on Front Campus. Twice a year, back when I would attend classes in person, I would see the giant white convocation tent that took up almost half the field. Although I am definitely sad that I won’t be at a ceremony in Convocation Hall and I’ll never get to see the inside of that tent, I am truly grateful for the university experience that I did get to have and for me, that experience would truly not have been the same if it wasn’t for Hillel.

  • David Polisuk, Hillel UofT
Purim!

Purim!

Hillels York, UofT and Ryerson

This past week, Hillels York, UofT and Ryerson, in partnership with JLIC, celebrated Purim together. As we all know, this year has been an especially unique year. Although there was no way to have a regular in-person Megilah reading and Purim party, Hillel got creative by organizing a drive-in Megilah reading! People dressed up, sat in their cars, and listened to Ben Shore (a fellow student at UofT) read the Megilah. Taking advantage of being in our cars, we honked at the sound of Haman’s name. At the end, everyone had the chance to get a shawarma laffa and later join a virtual game night over zoom. This Purim was definitely different, but one we won’t soon forget. Thank you to everyone who was able to make this Purim so special!

  • Hadar Wercberger, Hillel Ryerson

 

Queen’s Hillel

On Purim, Jews (of legal drinking age) are encouraged by the Talmud to drink until they do not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. With this in mind, one of the ways through which Queen’s Hillel celebrated Purim was to follow this custom. Following the lead of Dammara Kovnats Hall, the founder of Jewish Cocktails, students joined together over Zoom to create three delicious Purim-themed cocktails and mocktails. The drinks were based on ingredients that have traditionally been available during the time of Purim and were inspired by different aspects of the holiday. The drinks we made included the Shushan Sipper, the Hamentaschen Martini, and Masks and Mystery; a whisky and ginger beer-based drink that was my personal favourite.

A few days before, we delivered a basic mixology kit complete with mason jars, cocktail umbrellas, Hamentaschen, and an ingredient list to students. For me, part of what made the event so much fun was everyone laughing together over different substitutions that people were making if they did not have a specific ingredient or a tool to use when making their drinks. Through this event, we were able to successfully replicate the party atmosphere that Purim typically has. 

In a year where we’ve been forced to hold all of our events online, it can be difficult to plan an event online while ensuring that engagement is still high. With our Masks and Mixology event, we had no trouble at all! Purim is a holiday that is meant to be celebrated with others through giving out Mishloach Manot (gift baskets), dressing up, and getting together to listen to the reading of the Megilah. While Purim celebrations over the world certainly looked different this year, being able to celebrate over zoom through our mixology event allowed myself and many others to feel as though it was a regular celebration. Having had the opportunity to celebrate Purim and other holidays online, it’s provided a sense of normalcy in a year that has been anything but normal and has allowed students to get a sense of the Queen’s Hillel experience.

Dammara provided us with the opportunity to perfect our mixology skills while getting a chance to explore Judaism and the themes of Purim together. While it may not have been a traditional celebration of Purim, I know that I will be bringing these cocktail recipes with me to celebrate Purim next year.

  • Belinda Cantor, Queen’s Hillel

 

McMaster Hillel

It has become challenging to create engaging, exciting and meaningful virtual events during the lockdown. “Free Esther”, a Purim-themed escape room that was envisioned and constructed by the McMaster Hillel executive team, challenged participants to enter a maze of puzzles as Mordechai tries to free Esther, the female protagonist of the Purim story. Participants worked together and got to know each other as they worked to solve the puzzles that would lead to Esther.

This event was a huge success! We brought together Judaism, tradition and people in a fun and engaging activity. One participant mentioned that this had been “the best event I’ve been to all year!” (including all virtual experiences by any organization). 

Incredibly, community engagement is thriving at events like this, despite the pandemic. We hope that events like these will compel more people to get involved with Hillel and their community in the future. With that in mind, McMaster Hillel will hopefully return next year with more fun Purim-related adventures, perhaps an in-person escape room. We wish everyone a Chag Purim Sameach!

  • Andy Roth, McMaster Hillel

 

Guelph Hillel

It’s been tough to get into the Purim spirit this year while separated from friends and family, but Guelph Hillel came together to create a virtual Purim Murder Mystery event that brought the community together in a new and exciting way. The event on Tuesday, March 2nd, was preceded by a Purim-themed Shabbox delivery on Friday — Shabbat dinner was delivered to students across Guelph, along with extra goodies for the holiday, and Mishloach Manot (gift baskets) were sent out to students residing in Toronto. The interactive event on Tuesday event gave students the chance to interview characters from the Purim story — King Achashverosh, Queen Esther, Mordechai, Haman, Zeresh, and Shashgaz — to find out who killed Vashti in an exciting murder mystery plot! These characters were portrayed by student actors, who all worked incredibly hard to bring them life, and it was thoroughly entertaining chatting with each of them. Students participating were put into teams and got to interview each character twice before coming to a team verdict and voting on who they suspected the murderer was.

It was exciting to be teamed up with new people and work together to solve the puzzle, and a great opportunity to make new friends! Even after the event was officially over, most of the participants didn’t want to leave, and many stayed online to chat and hang out with new friends and old. It was wonderful to see people so engaged with this event and immediately forming connections with other members of the Guelph Hillel community. Though we all hope to be able to celebrate Purim in-person next year, this kind of innovative programming from Guelph Hillel made the holiday special despite challenging circumstances.

  • Alex Thomson, Guelph Hillel

The Guelph Hillel Murder Mystery was amazing!! I constantly found myself on the edge of my seat! It was incredibly interactive, and it rid me of my Zoom fatigue. Every student was invested in the program and in their given characters, which made the competitive atmosphere enjoyable and motivated me to win. It was so nice to meet and chat with new people and old friends, and make new connections on our new virtual world. This was by far the best event I have attended throughout the pandemic, and I am looking forward to a Passover murder mystery, perhaps who killed Pharaoh…

  • Debby Klachook, Guelph Hillel

 

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