Along with being one of the city’s oldest Jewish organizations, Hillel is the epicenter of Jewish culture on campus. We caught up with Hillel’s Jewish Educator Dov Whitman at their newly renovated building on Stanley Street to hear his thoughts on the Jewish experience and the peace process between Muslims and Jews.
What’s the purpose of the Hillel house?
To give students meaningful Jewish experiences so that they can enrich themselves and enrich others.
Tell me about the Hillel house building here on Stanley Street.
It’s a home for Jewish students at Concordia and McGill as well as students in CEGEP. We have a fully Kosher restaurant and wireless access. We have people passing through, coming to meetings and to study and, we also have student residences here.
How is Hillel trying to bridge the gap to peace between Jewish and Muslim groups at Concordia?
In the past year there have been a lot of political issues between Hillel and Muslim student groups. Beginning last year and following into this year, we’ve tried to go in a complete different direction. We decided, rather than yelling at each other, to sit down in a room together and start talking. So last year we had dialogues between the Jews and the Arab student associations, the Muslim student associations, we’ve even done a few things with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. Even though obviously a lot of the different groups disagree with each other, we’re able to communicate.
It was the Concordia Middle Eastern Day a few weeks ago, how did that go?
It was perfect. It was a day of only culture, no politics, no issues. Everybody participated in it, including Hillel. Everyone got along. We have pictures of a Hassidic Jew dancing with a Muslim.
Would you say Israelis have much in common culture-wise with other communities in the Middle East, such as in Lebanon, for example?
With certain groups of Israelis there are a lot of similarities. Of course, there’s always the age-old dispute about who invented the falafel. Was it the Israelis? Was it the rest of the Middle East? Everyone [argues over it] but everyone likes a falafel.
How can Concordia students be a part of
Hillel’s peacemaking efforts?
Students can join Hillel, because we are very active in bringing the different student groups together. You do not have to be Jewish to join Hillel. The great thing about Hillel is anyone who gets involved and has an idea for a peace project can get it done. We’ll give you money, we’ll give you staff, resources and publicity.
Do you offer any services to non-Jewish students?
Everything that we do here is offered to everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish. The meals, the holiday dinner, the classes. You don’t have to be Jewish to come.
What is one of the most innovative programs that Hillel is promoting?
Rosh Hashanah Lite. It’s an abridged version of the high holiday service. Instead of coming to the synagogue for hours and hours, you come for one hour.
Are there a lot of non-Jews who come here?
A lot of people come here looking for information. I’m very happy to talk to people about it. I was actually teaching a class at Concordia last year called Judaism 101 and no one in the class was Jewish. We also do a lot of interfaith events. [A few weeks ago,] we had a world renowned Rabbi come to speak, and we had an amazing group here, we had Catholics, representatives from the MSA at Concordia and McGill, and representation from the Sikh students.
Have you heard of anyone experiencing anti-semitism at Concordia?
We don’t hear that students experience anti-Semitism often. You always have a professor once in a while that says Israel has no right to exist but being anti-Israel is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic. Sometimes people perceive them as being the same thing, but they are two different things and not necessarily connected. But in general, pure anti-semitism, [is something] people hardly feel on campus.
Has Hillel ever felt misunderstood by the Concordia administration?
I think every student group has felt misunderstood by the administration! I know certainly, at the beginning of the year when the administration was taking the Mezzanine from the CSU, as a student group, Hillel was together with all the student groups lobbying for more student rights and more student power, I certainly think that’s a good thing. In general, we get along well with the administration and we don’t encounter any serious problems.
What else would you like say about Hillel?
Hillel is an extremely open and welcoming place. People have different ideas of what they think it is and who they think it is for, but Hillel is for everyone. Anyone is welcome to come through the doors and all who come will be welcomed warmly.