The first Jewish society to operate at the University of Toronto was the Menorah Society. Founded in 1917, it was disbanded in 1944 due to lack of interest. In 1944, a second Jewish society appeared: the Jewish Student Fellowship. Two years later, in 1946, the fellowship transformed into the University of Toronto B’nai Brith Hillel Foundation. By this time, there were approximately one thousand Jewish undergraduate students studying at the university.
The first Hillel was established at the University of Illinois by Rabbi Benjamin Frankel in 1923. Himself a recent graduate of rabbinic school, Rabbi Frankel accepted a part-time pulpit in Champaign, Illinois, with the proviso he was able to work with postsecondary students. The movement soon spread to other universities, and by the middle of the twentieth century it was established in Canada.
The first half of the twentieth century was not an easy time to be Jewish on campus. Antisemitism was commonplace, and things were even more challenging for Jewish students looking to enter medical school. In Toronto, as in many other cities, a quota system was put in place with the intention of limiting the number of Jewish students in each cohort. In this sometimes-hostile environment, Hillel served to support Jewish students spiritually even as it prepared them for life after university.
Even in these times, however, things were not always serious. Already in the early years, Hillel offered a variety of fun and engaging programs, such as art performances, dances, and courses in Jewish literature. It also held Shabbat services for Jewish students, who might otherwise have been unable to honour the Sabbath with their fellow Jews. In addition, Hillel edited a literary magazine and a bulletin. It also maintained a number of committees that oversaw religious and cultural matters.
Hillel was not limited to the University of Toronto. In 1948, an Inter-Hillel Conference was set up, with Queen’s University, McGill University, and the University of Toronto taking turns hosting the conference. This conference allowed Jewish students from Ontario and Quebec to meet and discuss common interests.
In 1950, Hillel UofT, as it is now called, acquired a house at 186 St. George Street. The house was named Hillel House and dedicated on 21 January 1951. Unfortunately, the house was destroyed in a fire in December 1977. That same decade saw a decline in Hillel’s numbers, with only a minority of Jewish students choosing to affiliate with Hillel. (In 1974, of approximately 3,000 Jewish students, only four hundred were registered members.) Despite this dip, Hillel continued to offer a variety of programs, including retreats, a music club, a coffeehouse, a film series, and an annual Purim bash. By the end of the decade, the trend of decline was reversed. In 2004, Hillel UofT opened its new home: the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life. The Wolfond Centre is located at the corner of Harbord and Huron Streets and occupies 10,000 square feet.
Today, Hillel Ontario serves a combined student population of over 13,000 on nine universities. With many Jewish students today uncomfortable asserting their identity in the classroom, Hillel will continue to play an important role in providing safe spaces on campus for them to do so.
Historically, universities have been sites of both antisemitic discrimination and Jewish accomplishment. Nowhere are both aspects of the university experience better documented than in the records of Hillel, the best-known Jewish organization on college and university campuses. The Ontario Jewish Archives is pleased to have among its holdings almost four metres worth of records documenting along other Hillels in Ontario, such as the Hillel at Queen’s University. The photographs, event materials, and other records document the cultural and religious lives of Jewish students on campus over a period of decades.