Chabad Combats Hate At York University With Enhanced Jewish Involvement

Chabad Combats Hate At York University With Enhanced Jewish Involvement

Photo Credit: Jonathan Karoly

by D. Lipson - Toronto, Canada

August 19, 2009

( Vidal Bekerman uses a spiritual approach when addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric at York University in Toronto.

He directs a Chabad center at the school where campus politics are often inextricably linked to Middle East tensions.

Story Highlights

• Jewish students at York troubled by anti-Israel student government. photo: Jonathan Karoly

• Chabad intensifies efforts to reach university 45000 Jewish students

“We made a conscious decision to take an apolitical approach to this whole issue,” he says. “We try to avoid confrontation with the anti-Israel and the Arab students. It’s based on the Hasidic idea that you don’t fight darkness with a stick, you turn on the lights.”

Bekerman and his wife Chanah Leah, both York alumni, offer a range of religious and social programs to York’s 4,500 Jewish students.

“We try to go forth we our mission and turn on the lights and bring Judaism in a warm, comfortable way, and encourage people to do mitzvahs and come to our classes,” Bekerman says. “When Jews are strengthened, united and connected to their Judaism – that is the greatest way to combat this whole campaign.”

Chabad at York University has helped strengthen Ori Bergman’s sense of Jewish identity. Bergman has never personally experienced anti-Semitism on campus, but “the whole feeling around school is one of subtle anxiety,” he says.” “It’s like it’s not your place anymore.”

Anti-Semitic material was discovered in a library washroom last month. An alternative campus paper, the YU Free Press, published a cartoon comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April.

“It was a very downer of a year,” Bergman says.

A group of Jewish students, including Jonathan Blake Karoly, were barricaded in the Hillel lounge at York in February.

They had fled a heated press conference organized by the Drop YFS (York Federation of Students) campaign, which had attempted to impeach the university’s student government for its support of union members during a class ending three-month strike. Some students involved in the Drop YFS campaign belonged to Jewish organizations on campus.

“The student government on the other hand went on the defensive and stated that the reason why the groups involved with the petition to rid them from office was because we as Jews were upset that they passed a resolution condemning Israel for their action in Gaza,” Karoly wrote in a Facebook note after the incident. 

“Keep in mind that a large majority of the student government is comprised of students who are pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel supporters.”

The press conference quickly turned into a shouting match. Jewish students ducked into the Hillel lounge. They were followed by a group of students chanting “Zionism is racism.”

“The students outside of the Hillel were shouting louder their anti-Israel slogans and banging on the floor and walls so hard that the lights outside the Hillel were flickering,” Karoly wrote.  “… And as 20 Jewish students walked single file through this unruly mob, they were pointing, laughing and chanting that we were "Racists on Campus!”

The Commission on the Quality of Life for Jewish Students at York University was established recently by Hillel of Greater Toronto,  Hasbara at York, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the CIJA (Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy), to make recommendations to the university. The recommendations can be found here.

“York is a great place for Jewish students overall,” says Daniel Ferman, city-wide student council chair of Hillel of Greater Toronto. It has some of the best academic programs for Jewish studies, a kosher cafeteria, and wide and vibrant Hillel and other Jewish student clubs and associations. And yeah, we faced issues this year, they are probably some of the biggest issues we faced in many years, but this too shall pass.”

Chabad at York University will offer the Jewish Learning Institute course, “The Land and the Spirit,” this school year. It’s designed to help Jews understand their relationship to Israel.

“If you get involved with Chabad and you’re learning something, or doing a Jewish program, or involved in whatever capacity, in what the rabbi is doing – you’re feeding your identity,” Bergman says. “If you connect with your identity you’re not scared by anything, you’re not ashamed – this is who I am.” 

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