McGill University’s first Jewish student, Frederick Hart, MD, graduated in 1835. It wasn’t until 1905 that the first club for Jewish students – the Hebrew Students Association – would form, representing the seven or eight Jewish students enrolled at the University. The association took on a new name – the Maccabean Circle – in 1909, and by 1913 it represented more than 60 members.
The Maccabean Circle aimed to advance the study of Jewish culture, history and literature and create a welcoming environment for Jewish students. Indeed, as the First World War approached, many Jewish immigrants entered Montreal, and in turn, McGill’s Jewish student population saw a significant increase. In 1913, about 7% of McGill students were Jewish; by 1925, this number had climbed to 25%.
As anti-Semitic sentiments flooded the world, abhorrent policies followed. Across North America, in the late 1920s and into the 1940s, universities imposed caps on the number of Jewish students admitted. In 1926, Ira MacKay, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, suggested that McGill implement its own quota in a letter to then-Principal Sir Arthur Currie. While this never became an official policy, correspondences indicate that a quota was set to around 9-10% of the student population.
By 1933, the Jewish student population at McGill had fallen to 10.7%. Still, the Maccabean Circle offered a sense of belonging and solidarity for Jewish students on campus. As World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust rippled through the world, Jewish clubs continued to form on campus. Avukah, the first Jewish Zionist club on campus, was created in 1943 and educated on the dangers of fascism, advocating for the restoration and reinvigoration of Jewish culture. More organizations would emerge in the years to come including Hillel, which in 1945 established a site on Stanley street for cultural activities – Hillel House – that remains in use today.
From McGill’s first Jewish student club, through the world wars and into present day, Jewish students have demonstrated remarkable resilience and fashioned a vibrant, welcoming community on McGill’s campuses.