A Long Way
by Hadas Hait
Herb Weinstein was the first secular, non-rabbinical director of Hillel at McGill. He was a social worker who worked with many marginalized groups through the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services and brought a real cultural change to Hillel. He worked closely with the Ethiopian Jewish community and encouraged support for other oppressed Jewish communities. Herb passed away in 1987 at the young age of 60. Herb was my grandfather, my Zaide; I’ve heard many great stories about him, his passion and the overall care he had for people but unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to meet him. I myself am a hybrid of both Israeli and Canadian cultures as my mother is Canadian and my father is Israeli. When I was 12 I immigrated with my family to Canada and returned to Israel upon graduation to serve in the IDF as a tank instructor. Upon completing my service I returned to Canada and began my studies in hospitality and tourism management at Ryerson University.
During my first year at Ryerson I told myself that I wouldn’t get involved with pro-Israel activity on campus. I generally felt like I had given my part to Israel by serving in the IDF and I (wrongfully) assumed that perhaps what I had given was enough. I was generally open about sharing with others that I am an Israeli Jew; this was not limited to students but rather to my professors and faculty as well. In my second year at Ryerson, there were rumors that a motion in support of a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel was submitted to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) with the lead of Students for Justice in Palestine SJP and the Ryerson Students Union (RSU) themselves. Myself along with other students gathered to vote against this divisive motion. The motion passed with roughly 100 somewhat students voting yes to BDS. Mind you that those students, out of the total 30,000 students that attend Ryerson, represent roughly 0.3% of the student population at Ryerson. This was the turning point in my pro-Israel campus activity.
By my third year along with my program specific extra-curricular involvement, I became the president of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and a Hillel Israel Advocacy intern. SSI was previously named the Israeli Students Association which was unfortunately somewhat inactive as student involvement was low. After meeting with Ilan Sinelnikov, I made the strategic decision to join the international group SSI in order to create a more inclusive environment for those who may not be Israeli but want to support Israel. Throughout these roles in SSI and Hillel I, along with the help of many others, was able to host various events and proudly reintroduced a pro- Israel presence on campus. The most notable accomplishment in that year was the connection that I was able to make with the Hellenic Students Association (HSA) who are now great friends of Hillel; my good friend Peter Milonas was a big part of this accomplishment. SSI, Hillel at Ryerson, HSA and the Armenian Students Association now host an annual Kefi event, showcasing the similarities in our cultures. In addition, I also submitted a motion at the AGM for the RSU to actively fight Anti-Semitism on campus, this motion passed successfully. At the end of my third year after being spat at while filming a video and holding the Israeli flag, I decided I still wanted to be involved with pro-Israel activity on campus, but differently. On that note I am also thankful for the leaders that took over SSI and made it what it is today. Anopportunity came along for me to get involved with the Israel Engaged Campus (IEC) Internship as a part of Hillel. The internship is a pilot project where students connect other students from their program with Israel innovations from their respective fields. As a hospitality and tourism management student, this meant that I would connect students from my program to Israel. In one of my events I was able to engage students with an upbeat, interactive marketing video made by the Tourism Ministry of Israel – Tourism Israel. I was also able to invite representatives from Tourism Israel here in Toronto as guest speakers in a destination marketing course. This internship allowed me to think of Israel advocacy differently. It allowed me to gain an understanding that perhaps the effectiveness of Israel advocacy increases when you speak to people about things they care about, can relate to and can conceptualize. Perhaps to us the humanitarian benefit to the world, freedom of religion and the innovative aspect of Israel is obvious but so long as others cannot personally relate to our stories, and as long as they cannot imagine and conceptualize it, then our advocacy is not effective. In a professional area of study there is already the interest, familiarity and connection to the topic of discussion. This internship showed me a different perspective to advocacy and I am thankful to have been a part of it. I must admit that I, as a secular Israeli Jew, initially feared that Hillel would not be supportive of my causes and that I wouldn’t “fit in” at Hillel. In my first year I felt that Hillel didn’t cater to me and others from the secular community but I am happy to say that I was wrong. After 4 years at Ryerson I can truly say that Hillel has changed as an organization. Hillel is more inclusive to different Jewish communities; this is expressed through staff diversity, events that cater to religious and secular populations, Russian and Israeli initiatives, taking a more active role on Israel advocacy etc.
I respectfully choose to disagree with the criticism of Hillel as I think that Hillel has come a long way in the past couple of years. Hillel is a resource and it is what you make of it. It can be your place to study, meet people, find a mentor, eat, party, participate in Jewish life on campus and participate in Israel advocacy. I want to point out here that it is important to remember that Hillel was created in order to provide resources for Jewish life on campus. In that sense, Israel advocacy later came as a need due to campus climate. With that in mind, remember that Hillel is a resource for you to use as you wish. In my experiences, I can promise you that if you wish it, Hillel will do its best to make it happen. I respect other organizations that work endlessly to change campus environments for pro-Israel students. I also think that when organizations work together, positive results are evident. My advice for future students is to not burn bridges by having misconceptions but rather using all resources that you have as they are all of some value. I brought up my Zaide Herb Weinstein at the beginning of this article for a purpose. I must admit that my Zaide wasn’t my main motivation for getting involved, yet the stories of his character go with me a long way. I’ve discovered many new facts about him and his legacy after my involvement with Hillel by hearing stories from my family. I think that sometimes Israel advocacy or Jewish life is stronger than us, it chooses us in a sense that we are drawn to it by different motives, it is what we make of it and if there is one thing that you will take from this article, let it be that.
I will also take this opportunity to thank those (and there are plenty) who helped me share my story on campus, I am grateful for your support.