An inside look at the University of Toronto’s ‘restorative circle’ to address antisemitism on campus

The University of Toronto’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office hosted a restorative circle for Jewish students, staff and faculty on Jan. 23. Led by Hillel’s advocacy director Jacqueline Dressler, the virtual event utilized a racial healing framework designed to help victims of racial discrimination acknowledge and heal from the effects of those incidents.

The restorative circle was one of many steps UofT is taking to support its Jewish community. Last month, Dr. Ayelet Kuper from the school’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine published a report in the Canadian Journal of Medical Education outlining the antisemitism she has experienced there.

I am a student at UofT, and I attended the event. Personally, I do not consider myself to have been the victim of any form of antisemitism on campus, but I attended because I want to feel connected to the school’s Jewish community and I am curious about efforts to address antisemitism on campus.

There were about 25 members of UofT’s Jewish community attending the meeting. Most people had their cameras turned off, and none of the attendees spoke out loud. We used the chat box to communicate.

I hadn’t realized the event would be virtual when I signed up for it, so it turned out to be less conducive to connecting with people than I had expected. In fact, it was more of a personal process than an interpersonal one.

First, Jacqueline told us about the purpose of the racial healing framework that she would be using. She explained that it was important to acknowledge and tell the truth about past wrongs created by individuals and past instances of racism so that we could address the present consequences for ourselves and others and learn to love the racialized parts of ourselves.

She continued by saying we can do that by grieving, naming, and recognizing our experiences and the existence of antisemitism, explore internalized antisemitism, reclaim and celebrate our Jewish identity, and engage in healing practices.

After the introduction, we were prompted to think of a time when we had experienced antisemitism. We were then asked to journal for five minutes about how the situation made us feel in the moment, and what effects it continued to have.

Following the exercise, we shared single words or short phrases with the group about how we felt recalling the experiences.

For my activity, I wrote about the only time I can think of that someone expressed antisemitism towards me. I grew up attending Jewish day schools in Toronto, and even when I left the Jewish bubble I have been fortunate in not being subjected to antisemitism.

As part of the spring celebration of Lag ba-Omer, however, Moishe House (an organization for young Jewish adults) hosted a bonfire at Christie Pits. It took place in public, so other people were able to mingle if they wanted to. I asked one woman who was hanging around if I could borrow a lighter, and her immediate response was to ask me how I felt about Palestinians.

I was taken aback, because I didn’t see how the two were connected. I asked her if the first thing she would ask every Chinese person is whether they support China’s treatment of Uighurs, to which she said ‘yes’ (you can hear more about my thoughts on this incident on The CJN Daily).

Even though those two responses told me all I needed to know about her, I still think about that moment often, and wonder if there was something more I could have done to make her recognize the issues with what she said.

After we reflected on instances of discrimination, we next journaled about experiences that we associated with Jewish resilience or Jewish joy. I wrote about my Birthright trip last summer, how powerful it was to see so many of my new friends connect deeply and intimately with their Judaism for the first time, and how grateful I was to have grown up embedded in a Jewish household and community.

For our last exercise, we wrote about an intention we would use going forward to help us heal. It could be something Jewish-related, like attending services or lighting candles every Shabbat, or something healing but not necessarily Jewish, such as reading more or starting to meditate.

And that was it. In all, the event lasted just under an hour, and there was not much conversation among the participants. I believe as the beginning of a process it can be very valuable, but not if the process stops there.

For me, the most important part of healing as a Jewish person is healing with other Jewish people. Although we attended the same event, the amount of interpersonal communication and connection was minimal. Fortunately, Jacqueline also said Hillel and UofT plan to host more events for the Jewish community, including a town hall that is designed to foster conversation, so I look forward to seeing how this process of acknowledging, addressing, and healing from antisemitism continues.