There’s a new Jewish kid on campus – one who is confident about her rights, able to educate others who might try to intimidate and bully her, and willing to express her Judaism proudly, while helping to combat the rising antisemitism and anti-Israelism around her.
This kid is no kid though, she’s a new community startup called the Centre for Jewish Culture and Education (CJCE). Founded by president Vera Held and executive director Lisa Cohen, the Toronto-based organization, which has applied for charitable status, is focused on helping Jewish young people become more confident emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically, about expressing their Judaism and their human rights in school settings. “With the overt resurgence of worldwide antisemitism, helping youth in this way is a must more than ever,” said Held.
This summer, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre released the report Antisemitism on Campus: A Clear and Present Danger. It explains that Israel is the subject of multi-pronged campaigns of delegitimization on campuses across North America, and that virulent anti-Zionism is often a thinly veiled disguise for virulent antisemitism. Testimonials from students indicate that young people are afraid to express themselves as Jews or to be pro-Israel, for fear of being bullied, threatened or discriminated against – both by their peers and by educators.
In response to these reports, CJCE plans to provide workshops, literature, webinars and other tools to help students challenge antisemitic issues on campus, and to advocate for their rights. According to Cohen, who studied at York University in 2002, “In 13 short years, the tide has totally changed at York. I can’t even process how unwelcoming to Jews it’s become. We are supposed to move forward – it’s 2015. But, on campuses, it seems like we’re moving backwards in terms of antisemitism.”
CJCE is beginning its outreach with speaking engagements to community groups, Jewish societies and schools, and through continuing education at synagogues. “We want to appeal to and engage all generations,” said Held.
Held and Cohen are both full-time working professionals who came together for this cause due to their matched values. They met through the group Canadians for Israel and realized they had complementary skills. Held, with more than 30 years in communications, education and fundraising, and Cohen, with extensive experience on campuses via counseling and psychology, are working with a group of volunteers, mainly parents with high school- and university-aged children. Through information sessions and focus groups with their target audience, they are seeing an incredible amount of ignorance from students about their basic human rights, but they have also learned how frightened kids are and how upsetting their experiences with antisemitism have been.
CJCE’s volunteers each bring a different expertise to the organization, where they are researching university policies on human rights, making connections with professors and developing partnerships with like-minded advocates around the world to assist with communication, education and fundraising.
Held and Cohen are also trying to build alliances with groups across Ontario, and they hope to extend their work across Canada. They are currently in the midst of developing an education protocol and, soon, the curriculum will be available on the CJCE website (cjce.ca).
High school students – including those who feel the animosity and tension all around them – are being trained to be on-site liaisons at 20 Ontario universities. “We are developing professionals for the future,” said Cohen. “At university, you start defining your role as an adult. We want to make sure that Jewish students feel safe to be who they are, and are able to educate others. We want to give them the tools to make the best decisions, whether it’s dealing with the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement or with antisemitic professors. If we don’t start with these kids now, they are going to think it’s normal to be afraid of being Jewish and expressing themselves as Jews. We have to work on preventing a time where there are signs reading ‘No Jews allowed.’ The ‘other’ side has resources and people working on making that happen. If we don’t do something now, I predict, in 15 years, we are going to be seeing those signs again. That’s why empowering the next generation is so important. Our work is critical.”
Shayla Gunter-Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor, living in Thornhill, Ont. Her articles have appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, Lilith and Parents Canada. This article originally was published in the CJN.