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A networking Shabbat dinner for Jewish students and staff being held at a secure Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) location Friday evening is an opportunity to build campus community amidst rising antisemitism, students said.
Shabbat is the traditional day of rest in Judaism, observed every week from Friday night to Saturday evening. Hillel TMU, the university’s chapter of the global Jewish campus organization Hillel International, has hosted several Shabbat dinners in past semesters. However, this is the chapter’s first dinner that is focused on connecting Jewish students and faculty.
“It’s really important to come together, build a more interconnected community, (and) know that you have professors who are feeling the same way,” said Noam Kehimkar, a fourth-year business management student and president of Hillel TMU.
“We’re all going through it together,” she added.
Although the Shabbat dinner will be held on campus, the exact address is only available for individuals who RSVP’d online. This decision is part of new safety protocols that Hillel TMU implemented after the Oct. 7 attacks last year, Kehimkar said. An estimated 1,200 Israelis were killed and 250 taken hostage by Hamas during the attacks, as reported by NPR.
Over 25,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s ensuing military campaign, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
In response to reports that a swastika was displayed during a pro-Palestinian rally on campus, Hillel TMU shared a statement on their Instagram page in late November, writing: “We cannot and will not tolerate antisemitism on our campus.” The chapter now consults with TMU security before hosting events.
Security measures have extended to social media, as only accounts that follow Hillel TMU’s Instagram page can comment on their posts.
Malka Daniels, a fifth-year business management student and engagement coordinator for Hillel TMU, said the chapter changed their settings after posts about Holocaust Education Week and how to support Jewish students were flooded with comments like “Free Palestine.” Other comments called the organization “genocide supporters,” she said.
This evening’s Shabbat dinner is co-hosted by the university’s Jewish Employee Community Network (JECN), marking the first time that the two groups have officially collaborated on an event. Kehimkar said the JECN proposed the event before the winter semester began.
Both the JECN and Hillel TMU have seen skyrocketing participation since Oct. 7, Daniels said. She describes a vigil hosted by Hillel TMU following the attacks as a cornerstone event behind this engagement.
“Staff and administrators got to meet students face to face and say: listen, we’re in this together,” Daniels said. “At the end of the day, I’m not just your professor, you’re not just my student. We’re both part of the Jewish community and when one aspect of us is hurting, we all are.”
On top of their community-strengthening capacity, faith-based networking events can facilitate conversation starters, said Etai Babitsky, the chapter’s Shabbat and holidays director.
“From a business standpoint, I find it’s really tough just to start a conversation with somebody,” he said. “If you have some form of connection, whether it be religion, theology, or even what’s going on in your life today, I think it makes it a little easier to connect.”
Now a third-year global management student, Babitsky first got involved with Hillel TMU as a freshman. He said the chapter’s presence and events are particularly appreciated by students who live in downtown Toronto, away from home.
“They feel like they need a spot where they can meet up and I guess us providing that really helps out,” he said. “I know it’s helped out me personally.”
In accordance with Shabbat tradition, dinner begins with a variety of prayers, Daniels said. After a prayer is said over challah and wine (or grape juice), the gathering sings traditional Shabbat songs that are often taught in Jewish summer camps.
“After that, we begin eating and talking and just having whatever conversations come to mind,” she said. “It’s a great time.”