Back to basics for back to school with Hillel

Hillel Ottawa strives to go back to basics for the coming semester, ensuring fun safe spaces for university students amid the rise in antisemitism — both online and on campus.

Hillel Ottawa’s team, under the leadership of Director Sasha Kathron, along with Chair Dorothy Stern, and student leaders from both Hillel and Israel on Campus (IOC), is preparing for a challenging academic year – supporting students after a difficult and isolating pandemic, while simultaneously vigorously fighting for the unequivocal right of Jewish students to pursue their academic studies in a harassment-free and safe environment.

“We’ve been working through the summer behind the scenes, having conversations with officials and making plans to respond in the event of antisemitism on campus,” said Kathron. “We want every Jewish student to feel comfortable and safe.”

To help with this, Hillel Ottawa is grateful to have recently received a $45,000 grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund, which will help with their Israel advocacy efforts over the coming year.

“Thanks to the grant, we can increase our advocacy, and still focus on Jewish engagement,” said Kathron.

“We just hired a new staff member, Austin Pellizzer, and he’s been hired as our part-time advocacy coordinator,” said Kathron. Pellizzer comes with experience working with Hillel’s existing advocacy partners, and, as a recent student, is also familiar with on-campus student needs.

Pellizzer will be working with student leaders who want to be involved in “fighting the good fight and want to be leaders on campus,” said Kathron. He’ll also be building connections with other groups on campus so stronger interfaith and ally relationships exist.

A lot of the position will be focused on education-based work.

“We’re going to educate the students in two ways. What’s come up a lot when antisemitism feelings heat up is that students didn’t know how to react, especially when it is people they know … their friends … sharing propaganda,” said Kathron. “A lot of times students don’t feel like they have all the facts.”

Some of Pellizzer’s work will also talk about how not to engage when engaging might be not safe to do so, or when it might just become a “trolling” situation, like when it’s online.

“When are you really just fueling the flames? That’s a lot of the work that Austin’s going to be taking on.”

Other advocacy work will include things, like book clubs, pop-up tables on campus for advocacy outreach and more.

This comes on the heels of Ontario’s Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, July announcement of the province’s plan to counter rising antisemitism in elementary and secondary schools and communities. Partnering with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, the Government of Ontario will introduce new training initiatives, resources for educators, and supports for students to combat antisemitism.

While the provincial government’s plan focuses on elementary and secondary schools, Hillel is “here for you,” said Kathron.

“We have been working our butts off, creating emergency plans … no one wants to talk about the worst-case scenarios, but it is something we’re working through. A part of that is also making sure we have direct lines to campus security offices too.”

Kathron said she likes to think that students are “cautiously optimistic,” and excited to get back to campus.

“They want to have all the experiences they couldn’t have last year,” she said. “We want to not let the potential antisemitic wave put a damper on that. If things come our way, we will deal with it together. We want to instill Jewish pride back in our students.”

And part of that pride is Hillel’s student events — just like many classes have gone hybrid, so too will the event schedule for the fall semester.

“As much as possible, following health guidelines, we’ll continue with outdoor, in-person events, but we do realize we may need to pivot back to an online Hillel,” said Kathron. “We are excited to see students on campus again.”

This year, Hillel’s activities will focus on the things students love — “bagels, coffee, book club … and all of that great stuff we can offer regardless of the situation,” said Kathron.

The semester kicks off with a welcome event — a bagel brunch, of course — on Sept. 12, and more events will follow quickly.

“We want to take advantage of the nice weather that will allow for outdoor programming for now, so we’re squeezing in as much as we can,” said Kathron.

The focus is to have FUN, emphasized Kathron.

“The students, they really just want opportunities for fun and socialization, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Hillel Ottawa is still figuring out what all their programming will look like, but Kathron said there’s space for everyone.

“The more the merrier.”

With last year’s online model, there’s the potential for having missed new Jewish students on campus, so Kathron plans to send out a welcome message and form that can be passed on, to connect with new students on the campuses.

Jewish students should join the Hillel Ottawa email list and visit the Hillel website to be notified of events and upcoming advocacy efforts. In addition, Hillel Ontario will send a welcome package to a new Jewish student, if they sign up online.