U of T now offers some kosher options at UTSG following Hillel UofT’s Kosher Forward Campaign

Jewish diet available at Robarts, Medical Sciences building, Goodmans LLP Café

U of T now offers some kosher options at UTSG following Hillel UofT’s Kosher Forward Campaign

On January 23, Hillel UofT announced the partial success of its Kosher Forward Campaign, which aims to make kosher food options accessible at U of T. Kosher refers to food that is prepared in accordance with traditional Jewish law.

On January 27, U of T Food Services announced that food options that are certified by the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) as kosher are available at the Grab ‘N’ Go fridge at Robarts Library food court and the Medical Sciences Building. A third location, Goodmans LLP Café, located at the Faculty of Law building, also began to offer kosher options on January 29. Currently, the menu offers COR-certified wraps, sandwiches, and cold salads.

The campaign ran under the leadership of students Sofia Freudenstein and Chaim Grafstein. It involved a public petition, which brought together students, allies, and campus organizations, as well as months of discussion between Hillel UofT and the university. The original petition aimed to establish kosher food options at both food vendors and at residences; the latter has yet to be achieved.

Hillel is a Jewish campus organization with chapters at universities around the world. At U of T, the organization represents 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Food as an accessibility barrier

Hillel UofT Senior Director Rob Nagus wrote to The Varsity about the origin of the campaign: “Noticing a vital need for kosher food options, our Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi, Rabbi Julia Appel, along with some of our Hillel Student Leaders began conversations with many of our campus partners to explore the best way to move forward with a campaign to address said need.”

Nagus listed the Multi-Faith Centre and the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office as two major partners. “The plan was to gather a broad range of support for our campaign before approaching Administration.”

In a letter dated July 12, 2019, Freudenstein and Grafstein appealed to President Meric Gertler for U of T to live up to its commitment to diversity and inclusion by offering kosher food at the university, similar to how it offers vegetarian, vegan, and Halal options. “We believe the University of Toronto loses much by not providing kosher food,” the letter read.

The two campaign chairs stressed that the unavailability of a kosher option poses an accessibility challenge for Jewish students, who they claim are excluded from enjoying food on residence and on campus. The two urged the administration to follow other Canadian universities that already offer kosher food, lest they lose potential Jewish students to neighbouring schools. It would also relieve the strain that is put onto organizations like Hillel UofT to bear the cost of offering these options.

Aside from the letter, which requested a meeting with the administration, the campaign included a petition form that undergraduate and graduate students, both Jewish and allied, were able to sign to demonstrate support. By the end of its campaign, the petition accumulated over 400 signatures over at least three months.

The university accepts the campaign’s demands

On November 23, the public campaign ended and the petition was sent to the Office of the President. Hillel UofT further requested a meeting to discuss the petition.

On December 19, Hillel UofT members presented their campaign to the U of T administration, as represented by Vice Provost Students Sandy Welsh and Director Ancillary Services Anne McDonald. The university accepted the campaign’s demands on the same day, and committed to making kosher food available in the 2020 winter term. Its January 23 press release reads, “The strength of the partnership between Hillel and the U of T administration is testament to our collective ability to provide to our students with ongoing support and access to the services they need.”

While kosher food is officially available at three St. George locations, Hillel UofT looks forward to expanding the reach of the campaign in the future, possibly to UTM and UTSC. “We will look to reform a long dormant food services committee with the University to address long term solutions for providing greater access to kosher food that will extend to more locations, potentially including UofT’s satellite campuses,” wrote Nagus. “This committee will also address other food equity issues that affect the broader campus community.”

Controversy with the UTGSU

On November 15, Hillel UofT accused the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) of anti-Semitism after the latter’s External Commissioner, Maryssa Barras, expressed hesitation to support the Kosher Forward Campaign due to Hillel’s “pro-Israel” views. The story received widespread media attention in Canada and abroad.

Hillel UofT condemned the UTGSU’s conflation of the accessibility needs of Jewish students with Israeli politics. These tensions follow a previous conflict over the UTGSU’s establishment of a permanent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Committee on Israel, which Hillel had opposed.

Following further discussions between the organizations, the UTGSU apologized for the incident in a November 21 press release. It further announced that Barras had resigned and that it would undergo anti-oppression training.

Hillel UofT responded positively, writing that the UTGSU had “expressed a willingness to bring forward a motion to support the Kosher Forward campaign.” In addition to its apology, the UTGSU “has begun working with Hillel and other Jewish communal organizations to ensure incidents such as this one will never happen again,” Nagus wrote.

At its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in December, the UTGSU held a discussion on anti-Semitism in response to the November controversy. The meeting featured members from Hillel UofT, Independent Jewish Voices UofT, and the Kosher Forward Campaign itself, who offered competing views on the question of anti-Semitism in the UTGSU and Hillel’s representation of Jewish students.

The discussion on anti-Semitism continued on January 27, when the AGM was readjourned due to a failure to meet quorum in December.

UTGSU to discuss anti-Semitism at Annual General Meeting follow-up

Union at risk of financial default if quorum not reached

UTGSU to discuss anti-Semitism at Annual General Meeting follow-up

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) will be re-adjourning its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on January 27 after failing to meet quorum on December 5. If the UTGSU does not reach quorum it may be at risk of not passing its audited financial statements from the previous year and thus defaulting to the university.

The union plans to continue its discussion on anti-Semitism, hear reports from various committees, and address motions from members.

Long debates on anti-Semitism at last AGM

Despite not achieving quorum at its AGM on December 5, the UTGSU went ahead with item five on its agenda: a discussion on anti-Semitism at U of T.

This discussion took place after a UTGSU commissioner expressed reluctance to support Hillel UofT’s Kosher Forward Campaign on the grounds that Hillel is a pro-Israel organization. The campaign was created to lobby for kosher food options on campus.

The seriousness of the issues up for discussion was not forgotten, with three campus police officers standing by while members filed in to register. 

Senior Director of Hillel UofT, Rob Nagus, read out a prepared statement to the membership which alleged that anti-Semitism at the UTGSU extends beyond its controversy over the Kosher Forward Campaign. Nagus claimed that the response of the former external commissioner, who had refused to address the Kosher Forward Campaign in an executive motion, “reflects a deep-seated culture of systemic anti-Semitism.”

Nagus also noted that “the UTGSU’s inability to separate Jewish students from the actions of the Israeli government and [the] lack of understanding about Zionism’s multifaceted role in Jewish communal history… is a grave concern to Hillel.”

Alex, a member of the group Independent Jewish Voices, responded to Nagus, asserting that the “conflation of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Judaism, and Zionism” is a wrongful one.

“If the UTGSU is interested in addressing anti-Semitism in any meaningful way, I would encourage them to do so outside of purely speaking with Hillel,” Alex said, noting that Hillel International’s mandate bars partnership with or hosting groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Also in the December discussion, Chaim Grafstein, the Kosher Forward Campaign lead who submitted the motion to the UTGSU, cited the implementation of Kosher Forward as a “concrete [step]” toward addressing anti-Semitism on campus.

Grafstein pointed out that if one searches the UTSG food map, Hillel is currently the only spot that offers kosher food. “So this is an opportunity to provide kosher food also to students who choose to actively dissociate with Hillel.”

Grafstein also thanked Hillel for the opportunity to work on the Kosher Forward campaign “despite some of [his] political views.”

The UTGSU did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment on how they would structure the discussion on anti-Semitism at the re-adjournment of their AGM.

On January 23, Hillel UofT successfully lobbied the university to provide kosher options on campus.

Motions by members

Among the motions for the upcoming AGM is a proposal to revisit a motion from a September meeting that annulled the memorandum agreement between the UTGSU and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (OISE GSA).

The September motion itself was moved after an investigation found 20 constitutional violations in the OISE GSA’s April elections, and ultimately resulted in the OISE GSA’s disaffiliation as a course union, a loss in funding, and a loss of seats on the Board of Directors and General Council.

Also on the table is a motion that asks the membership to express opposition to “any program of sanctions, divestment or boycotts targeting any country, nationality, ethnic group or identity in particular” and instead boycott, divest, and sanction based on “objective criteria.”

This motion appears to be explicitly targeting the UTGSU’s BDS Committee, who will also be presenting its report at the AGM. The BDS movement urges corporations, universities, and local governments to boycott Israel in protest of its occupation of Palestinian territory and treatment of Palestinians.

Graduate Students’ Union accused of anti-Semitism in kosher food dispute

UTGSU formally apologizes after criticisms from Jewish campus group Hillel UofT

Graduate Students’ Union accused of anti-Semitism in kosher food dispute

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) is facing allegations of anti-Semitism for its original reluctance to support the Kosher Forward campaign, an initiative by Hillel UofT to bring kosher food to campus. Hillel UofT, a prominent Jewish organization on campus, has criticized the union for “conflating the Jewish fight for kosher food with [its] support of the Jewish state.” The UTGSU has since apologized and External Commissioner Maryssa Barras resigned on November 21 in the midst of the dispute.

Hillel criticizes the UTGSU

The controversy began when a UTGSU Board of Directors member reached out to Barras to ask if the UTGSU Executive Committee would present an Executive Motion at its upcoming General Council meeting in support of the Kosher Forward campaign. The response given by Barras, according to the UTGSU’s statement, “mistakenly… insinuated that the UTGSU Executive Committee might be reluctant to bring the motion forward to the UTGSU General Council/Board-of-Directors as a result of Hillel being ‘pro-Israel.’”

However, in her response Barras also directed the member to other avenues to submit the motion, according to the UTGSU’s statement.

In its press release, Hillel condemned the conflation of Israel and all Jewish issues as a form of anti-Semitism.

Responding to Hillel’s press release, the UTGSU wrote on November 17 that the original comments were “not on behalf of the UTGSU’s executive committee,” and stated that it provided the student with an avenue to submit the motion through the Equity and Advocacy Committee.

Hillel’s central complaint with the UTGSU’s apology was that it did not “address the anti-Semitic nature of their original response.”

This is not the first time that the UTGSU and Hillel have been in conflict. Last February, the UTGSU enacted a permanent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Committee on Israel, leading Hillel to comment that they were “very disappointed” with the decision.

UTGSU external commissioner resigns

After representatives from both Hillel and the UTGSU met for discussions, the UTGSU announced in a November 21 press release that Barras had submitted her resignation. The press release notes that the resignation was due to “the anti-Semitic comments written regarding the Kosher Forward Campaign.”

The UTGSU “[recognizes] that this incident reveals a larger issue of anti-Semitism and discrimination,” also noting that the Executive Committee will undergo anti-oppression training in order to address anti-Semitism in their organization.

After the resignation press release, Hillel wrote that it is “grateful” that the UTGSU has expressed a “willingness to bring forward a motion to support the Kosher Forward campaign,” and suggested the possibility of the two groups working together to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Kosher Forward

Hillel represents U of T’s Jewish student population, which is estimated at 1,000–1,500 students. It started the Kosher Forward petition for greater access to kosher food on campus, led by students Sofia Freudenstein and Chaim Grafstein.

Grafstein said that the motivation behind the project was “this sense that as a Jewish student on campus you have to ask for a lot in order to get kosher food, and you feel this huge burden to make a case for yourself wanting or needing kosher food.”

Grafstein said that he wanted to get involved in the cause when he was invited to a conference held by his department, which he claims did not provide kosher food for those who required it. “And there was a noticeable group of people who kind of felt excluded, because they just couldn’t eat anything.”

Currently, students who keep kosher have no options for kosher food in residence meal plans or from U of T-run food vendors on campus. There are no kosher meal plans in the residence system, and students who keep kosher cannot share a kitchen that is not kept kosher. In the meantime, Hillel has been filling the need for kosher food by providing access to kosher dinners during the week and kosher snacks in its office.

“Their time on campus is marked by food uncertainty,” reads the petition’s description of students who keep kosher, noting that many other universities provide more kosher options than U of T.

As the campaign ended on November 23, the petition and its signatures were sent to the Office of the President, with whom Hillel is requesting a meeting in order to discuss the petition. Although Grafstein noted that the petition already has a few hundred signatures, he emphasized that “It’s an issue of accessibility, not an issue of numbers.”

Community response

Freudenstein and Grafstein expressed their disappointment at the campaign being politicized: “I very much care about the kosher campaign and saw it as a non-partisan issue,” said Freudenstein. “This kind of exploding — I just didn’t sign up for this.”

Grafstein commented that as a graduate student, he felt that the UTGSU’s apology was lacking. “At the beginning of [UTGSU] meetings there’s an equity statement that’s read [and] included in that is anti-Semitism, so to see a statement and an apology that doesn’t even use the word anti-Semitism and instead uses phrases like ‘harmful toward Jewish students at U of T… is really hurtful and it feels like my participation in equity in the UTGSU is compromised as a Jewish student.”

In an email from the UTGSU Executive Committee, which was sent on November 25, the group wrote that Barras’ resignation was her own decision and that “the UTGSU has not taken a stance on the Kosher Forward Campaign, as was mentioned in the initial email response as well as in the public memo. The UTGSU Executive Committee has contacted Hillel representatives, and is looking forward to continuing dialogue with them.”

A university spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Varsity that the UTGSU is an “autonomous student organization that acts independently from the University of Toronto.”

The UTGSU “[is] required by university policy to operate in an open, accessible and democratic manner and to allow a diversity of perspectives to be heard. We have written to the group to remind them of this obligation,” noted the spokesperson.

The university also expressed willingness to discuss the campaign and explore further options for kosher food on campus in an email to The Varsity.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union, representing undergraduate students, released a statement in support of the petition.

Barras declined The Varsity’s request for comment.

Editor’s Note (November 25, 5:17 pm): This article has been updated to include comment from the UTGSU Executive Committee. It has also been updated to correct that there are no other vacancies on the executive committee other than the external commissioner.