KIRMAN: Problematic monuments in Edmonton Force Us to Question Our Community’s Core Values

Educate, don’t celebrate


Over the past few weeks, activists around the world have dismembered, smeared, and toppled monuments to figures with morally and ideologically checkered pasts, renewing heated conversations about the historical implications of excising statues and place names honouring people once celebrated, but now viewed as problematic. 

Edmonton is also reckoning with its past. In recent weeks, a neighbourhood association in the city’s west end initiated a campaign calling upon the city to initiate an inclusive community process to rename their district, which is named after Frank Oliver, an early twentieth-century federal cabinet minister known for anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant policies. 

But there are other problematic place names and monuments in Edmonton. One of them is a bust of Roman Shukhevych, located at the entrance of the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in the city’s north end. Shukhevych was supreme commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War II and held leadership positions in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. While viewed as a hero by Ukrainian nationalists for his anti-Soviet posture, Shukhevych shared the Nazi ideology and was responsible for commanding troops that committed massacres with the goal of creating an ethnically “pure” Ukraine free of Poles, Jews, and many others during the Holocaust.

I first heard of Shukhevych in 2017, when I was approached by Adam Bentley, an Edmonton-based filmmaker, to collaborate on a documentary about yet another monument to Ukrainian nationalists in the city. A major connection to my spiritual heritage as a Jewish person is tikkun olam (healing/repairing the world). I am also a working artist always seeking opportunities to incorporate my activism with my practice – both faith and artistic – so I was intrigued by the opportunity. 

Bentley, a fellow Jewish filmmaker, had discovered a monument in St. Michael’s Cemetery in north Edmonton. The English and Ukrainian plaques on the monument pay tribute to seven battalions who fought in World War II, including the UPA, Ukrainian National Army (UNA), and 14th Waffen SS Galicia Division, which was renamed the 1st Ukrainian Division shortly before the end of WWII. The latter division collaborated with the Nazis in their failed pursuit of Ukrainian independence against the Soviet Union, participating in massacres of Jews, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians with communist sympathies. Our 2019 short film, A Monumental Secret, delved into the contentious nature of this monument through the narrative of two friends grappling with their knowledge of the monument’s history. During my work on the film, which features interviews with Drs. Per Anders Rudling and John-Paul Himka, two prominent academics who have studied the Ukrainian far right, Shukhevych’s name came up more than a few times. 

The film and my activism around the Shukhevych bust has generated its share of controversy in Edmonton. While the film has been officially selected for three Ukrainian film festivals, in Lviv, Bobritsa, and Kyiv, it has been rejected from a number of local Edmonton film festivals, despite funding from the Edmonton Arts Council. 

Following an episode about the monument on a local progressive politics podcast in October 2019, then a subsequent article in the Alberta Jewish News, a local Ukrainian journalist lashed out with angry emails and phone calls. More recent media responses from representatives of the Youth Unity Complex emphasize that Shukhevych represents freedom to the Ukrainian community, and anything else is just Russian propaganda intended to divide ethnic communities. Indeed, in 2017 Russia’s embassy to Canada had been tweeting about the Shukhevych monument, as well as the one in St. Michael’s Cemetery.

But attacking the source does not make the message untrue. 

There seems to be an ever-growing crescendo of awareness about controversial Edmonton monuments that have sat hidden in plain sight for decades. However, no one in Edmonton should feel comfortable with a monument to a Nazi collaborator in their city. Surprisingly, the Jewish Federation of Edmonton did not issue a statement on the status when I contacted the organization for comment in late 2019. 

shukhevych bust edmonton

The statue may be on private property, giving the impression it is for private recognition, but that argument is not valid for two reasons. One, we all live on stolen Indigenous land. Moreover, the bust (along with the St. Michael’s Cemetery monument) was erected with the help of public funds in the mid-1970s, from programs designed to promote multiculturalism in Canada. Second, a statue of a Nazi collaborator responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths to achieve “ethnic purity” is not appropriate anywhere. I am a Jewish person with ancestors from Ukraine; a statue to someone involved in the genocide of my people is deeply hurtful and unacceptable.

It is difficult when someone viewed by a community as a hero turns out to be flawed. The truth can hurt, but it should not be ignored. Denying the truth in this instance is a form of Holocaust denial. A statue is an image that may be silent, but the message that it—and the views of the people who blindly support it—can communicate, speaks volumes about the values that the community espouses. 

At the same time, removing a statue does not erase a person from history. Not telling the whole truth about a historical figure is what erases history—and what dooms us to risk repeating its mistakes. The accomplishments and achievements of someone can still be taught without putting someone up on a pedestal. The future of these problematic monuments is up to the communities in which they sit. These communities must search their souls to realize what these statues, having sat untouched for so long, say about their core values, and on what side of history they want to sit.

Paula E. Kirman lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She is a writer, editor, filmmaker, photographer, musician, and community organizer. Her website is You can also follow her on social media: @apaulagetics. 

KATCHEN: The Pandemic, the Environment and Judaism


There is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has been devastating in terms of health, social isolation, and the economy the world over. Despite this incredibly challenging time, some people have been given reason to smile. This bright outlook can perhaps be credited to taking a step back, taking stock of what’s really important, and taking some deep breaths – in many cases of cleaner air.

A decline in air travel has resulted in a decrease of 17 percent in daily global emissions, according to Nature Climate Change, and the waters are running clear in Venice’s canals due to the lockdown in Italy. However, the question is, will these benefits to the environment prevail or will the world fall back into old patterns and wipe out any gains?

Judaism played a pioneering role in protecting the environment. There are many sources dating to biblical times in which Judaism prioritizes land, animals, nature and sustainability. In one example, the concept of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chaim conveys the value of kindness to animals through preventing or relieving an animal’s pain. While this value is expressed in many different sources in the Torah, some of particular note can be found in Shemot and Devarim. In Shemot, the Torah tells us that if one sees an enemy’s donkey struggling under a load that is too heavy, one is obligated to help the animal.

In Devarim, the Torah instructs that if a person sees a friend’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, one is not allowed to ignore the animal, but rather should help it. The point in both situations is to teach us that regardless to whom the animal belongs – whether your best friend or worst enemy – the key is to help the animal.

Another poignant example of Judaism’s regard for the Earth is shmita, or the Sabbatical Year. This is a year of rest for the land which takes place every seven years in Israel. In the seventh year, the fields are not harvested. There are many benefits to this break in working the land, including an opportunity to spiritually reconnect with it and to give thought to our actions affecting the environment. Perhaps it may make sense to buy locally, to cut back on meat consumption, and to add more organic items to our groceries. By giving the land a rest, we too can pause and reflect on our relationship with the Earth.

Among the myriad of other sources highlighting Judaism’s prioritization of the environment is the law forbidding the cutting down of fruit bearing trees, or Bal Taschit (thou shall not destroy). In this case, the Talmud explains that one may not chop down a fruit-bearing tree except in particular circumstances, such as when the tree damages other plants. This law emphasizes preventing waste and preserving that which is valuable.

In the Jewish world, there are some wonderful organizations prioritizing the environment including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Shoresh. These institutions are leading the way with eco-friendly innovations. During the hectic rat race of life, it is easy to grab what is quick, convenient, and disposable. It is my hope that humanity’s pause gives rise to more mindful choices as we gradually reset to a new normal. 

Elizabeth Katchen
Elizabeth Katchen

Elizabeth Katchen was born and raised in Victoria, B.C. and cares deeply about animals, the environment and the Jewish community. She is the former editor of FutureTense magazine, a national Jewish student publication, and a past freelance contributor to the Canadian Jewish News. Elizabeth is executive assistant to the programs department at Toronto’s Schwartz/Reisman Centre and Prosserman JCC.

LAZAR: I Hope my Son Meets a Nice Jewish Boy


He had just turned three the first time he placed his feet on Israeli soil. That summer of 1991, those little feet waded into the waters of the Mediterranean, walked the sands of Gordon Beach, and stood in lineups at hotel breakfast buffets. Let’s face it, at that young age, my son might as well have been in Miami or Muskoka. Except for one pivotal moment, forever memorialized in a snapshot.

In the photograph, he’s sitting on a boulder, wearing colourful cotton shorts, squinting into the sun, sandaled feet dangling. Not monumental, except that the stone is on the grounds of Yad Vashem, and my late parents, Holocaust survivors, had taken us on this trip. His toddler smile beams, oblivious to the heaviness of where we are. “Is it disrespectful?” I asked my father before capturing the image. “Bringing him to this museum in this country is my victory over the Nazis,” he answered.

Twenty-eight summers later, my son made aliyah. He’d made multiple trips to Israel since that first one, including Birthright and March of the Living. More recently, several visits had spanned Pride in Tel Aviv, which last year attracted over 250,000 participants.

On Sunday June 21, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai made an announcement to coincide with Pride: The city would recognize same-sex unions and non-traditional partnerships. This will grant them the same benefits that matrimonial couples enjoy, such as daycare and reductions in housing taxes.

When one of my other kids posted the news on our family Whatsapp chat, my son quipped: “Long live the State of Israel!” But actually, this initiative is not state-wide. On the contrary. While gay marriage isn’t illegal in the country, the Chief Rabbinate, which has national jurisdiction over marriage, still refuses to perform or even recognize these unions.

Huldai declared: “We hope the government will also enter the 21st century and uphold the rights of the LGBT community in law… the right to marry, have equal parental responsibilities, be protected from hate crimes along with workplace bullying, and more.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s position affects not only same-sex unions but also interfaith couples and those seeking civil rather than a religious ceremonies. These couples are forced to travel abroad to marry (commonly to Cyprus). The state recognizes the marriage after it’s registered with the Ministry of Interior.

Yet my son’s celebratory comment, “long live the State of Israel” is so fitting. “Am Yisrael chai.” Chai. Life. To be alive is to grow and change, and so must the state of Israel in order to reflect and accommodate the values of the majority of its citizens.

Tel Aviv is an extremely liberal, gay-friendly city with a young population that embraces the pulsing vibrancy. But it’s not just about Tel Aviv. Opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis support the legalization of same-sex marriage as well as related issues such as adoption and surrogacy rights for same-sex couples.

Recognizing same-sex unions isn’t just for the young and hip, today and tomorrow. It’s also to honour yesterday. I refer back to that day at Yad Vashem my parents had viewed as a victory over the depths of discrimination and loss which they had endured. Jews were not alone in the concentration camps. Between 1933 and 1945, gay men and women were persecuted under Nazi rule in Germany. Thousands of gay men were imprisoned in concentration camps. A monument dedicated to the gay victims of the Holocaust was erected in Tel Aviv in 2014 (and in Berlin in 2008).

As a biblically “chosen people” with the Holocaust in our recent history, tolerance and equality should not just be a goal or a mitzvah, but a moral imperative.

A familiar Bible passage reads, “Don’t oppress a foreigner, for you well know how it feels to be a foreigner, since you were foreigners yourselves in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) Do we want fellow Jews to feel like foreigners in their own land? The Talmud says: “One who acts from love is greater than one who acts from fear.” (Sotah 31a) Can we choose love over fear?

I hope my son meets a nice Jewish boy in Israel. Love is love.

Marilyn Lazar
Marilyn Lazar

Marilyn Lazar is a freelance writer with a background in culture, event and travel writing. Her personal essays focus on family, relationships, people and places.

ROYTENBERG: ‘Annexation’ Could Bring Palestinians to the Table


For a policy that has not yet been announced and whose details are unknown, the prospect of Israel formally extending its laws to cover additional territory in Judea and Samaria has provoked a great deal of reaction. It is reminiscent of the Palestinian Authority’s out-of-hand rejection of the proposed Trump peace initiative, long before its details were revealed.

In my inaugural article in the CJR, I outlined the sort of arguments we would be hearing from different sides on this issue. In this article, I will examine some of this pre-emptive reaction to the deadline of July 1, when Israel’s government has promised to start doing something about it.

Most of the world is opposed to unilateral action by Israel for various reasons, legal, moral or pragmatic. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which works to maintain the bipartisan support for America’s alliance with Israel, is not taking a position publicly, but is said to have acknowledged in private discussions with members of Congress that criticizing Israel over the issue is appropriate and won’t earn its disapproval.

On June 1, a group of retired Canadian diplomats called on the Trudeau government, in an open letter, to reaffirm its opposition to the acquisition of territory by force and its support of United Nations Resolution 2334, among others. The focus of this letter was the argument that any annexation by Israel would be illegal under international law. This letter was sponsored and sent to the government by the Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine (OFIP), a group that regularly publishes commentary and sponsors speakers critical of Zionism.

Another notable response was a letter signed by more than 400 Jewish studies scholars, including CJR contributor Mira Sucharov. Notably, the language in this letter called the prospective annexation a “crime against humanity” and said it would “thereby create (de jure) conditions of Apartheid in Israel and Palestine.” This letter was co-authored by Syracuse Jewish Studies Prof. Zachary Braiterman, who wrote, “For me, it came down to an Israeli geographical envelope splitting Pal. territories into Bantustan-like enclaves with no right to vote or legal rights.”

These terms – “crime against humanity” and “apartheid” – draw on rhetoric favoured by left-wing critics of Israel, and the fact that moderate scholars like Braiterman signed on shows how alarmed many North American Jews are at the prospect of unilateral action by Israel to try to break the long stalemate in the conflict.

Use of the term apartheid evokes an extreme left-wing narrative, which identifies Zionism with European colonialism. For Zionists, this characterization is profoundly misleading and misguided, as it equates the Jewish movement to rebuild their homeland with conquests by European powers of far-flung lands to which they had no historical connection.

The letter is also written “in opposition to the continuation of the occupation.” This language treats the occupation as something that is Israel’s responsibility to end, in spite of the fact that no peace agreement has been signed with the Palestinians who claim the territory. In fact, although the occupation has indeed continued for many decades, it is also true that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has gone on for decades longer.

As long as the conflict is not resolved, the occupation is legal. Rhetoric that calls for its end, outside the context of a peace agreement agreed between the parties, is slanted against Israel, which has a right to have its security concerns addressed before ending the occupation.

Those of us who are concerned about the possible ramifications of annexation should also consider the possibility that the threat of annexation may, in part, be a strategy meant to bring the Palestinians to the table. As I completed this article, news emerged that the PA is proposing a resumption of direct talks with Israel.

At the same time, however, annexation plans as of late June appeared in disarray as Israel’s alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, suggested it would have to wait while the country deals with its COVID crisis.

David Roytenberg

David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa.  He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.

GOLDBERG: Unraveling Jewish Conversions in Israel: Not an Easy Task


Rabbi Andrew Sacks is a “glass half-full” kind of person. As the Conservative movement’s point man in Israel on conversions, Rabbi Sacks is confident that the day when recognition of all conversions to Judaism in Israel, whether conducted by Conservative, Reform or Orthodox rabbis, is within reach. This, despite the discriminatory treatment of those who seek recognition as Jews in Israel, but were converted by non-Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.

More specifically, there is the ongoing crisis affecting at least 350,000-400,000 members of the Russian immigrant community in Israel – or their Israeli-born children and (now) grandchildren – who are being denied recognition as halachically Jewish (born to a Jewish mother or to a mother who has undergone an authorized Orthodox conversion) by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Without such recognition, “non-Jewish” Israelis are denied access to Jewish lifecycle event services (marriage, divorce, burial) which fall under the purview of the Chief Rabbinate.

Contributing further to this crisis is the fact that every year, some 4,500 children are born in Israel to parents who are classifiedunder “no religion,” while about 5,000 new immigrants each year from Russia or former Soviet republics are not recognizedas Jews because they do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s standards of Jewishness.

A December 2019 study issued by Hiddush, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to promote religious freedom and equality in Israel, indicated that of the 180,000 who arrived in Israel between (roughly) 2000 and 2018, only 25,375 were halachically Jewish. The overwhelming majority – 154,474 – immigrated as family members of Jews (partners, children, grandchildren) though they themselves were not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish.

A 2018 Israel Democracy Institute report warned that if the status quo on conversions, which favours the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, is not reformed, the hundreds of thousands of “non-Jews” or those of “no religion” among Russian immigrants in Israel who already face problems in registering for marriage and in receiving equal rights because of their status, will continue to multiply. This, the report concluded, will soon mutate into a demographic crisis for the Jewish state.

Rabbi Sacks hastens to emphasize that the goal is not to deny the Chief Rabbinate its rightful role in the recognition of Jewish converts, but rather to encourage it to agree to a broadened process for recognizing prospective converts, one that formally accepts a fair and equitable role for the Reform and Conservative movements and their respective rabbinic authorities.

Rabbi Sacks’ optimism about the ultimate conclusion of this struggle is based mainly on the success of a series of petitions toIsrael’s Supreme Court since the groundbreaking Shoshana Miller case in 1986 that have supported the right of those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis to be formally recognized as ‘Jewish’ in Israel.

(Miller had converted to Judaism in a Reform ceremony in the United States. Immigrating to Israel in 1985, she challenged the Interior Ministry’s labeling her a “convert” in her identity documents because the Reform movement is not authorized to conduct conversions in Israel. In December 1986, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in Miller’s favour, acknowledging that labeling her a “convert” in her documents would be discriminatory, and that Miller’s identity would henceforth be officially recognized as “Jewish”).

Rabbi Sacks believes that the coordinated strategy of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel of petitioning the Supreme Court with cases supporting the rights of non-Orthodox converts has the effect of chipping away at the Chief Rabbinate’s self-defined monopoly over recognizing conversions and of narrowing its legal options.

“The legal efforts are painfully slow but they are successful… Every court case we have pursued, we have won,” Rabbi Sacks told me by telephone on June 8.

In the beginning, the non-Orthodox advocacy groups were only able to get four or five cases before the Supreme Court each year. Today, the number is up to 500 cases annually.

Their efforts also are evidenced in the fact the Jewish-Israeli public is beginning to internalize non-Jewish conversions in Israel. A January 2020 survey by Hiddush found that 62 percent of Jewish Israelis “do not consider religious conversion through the Chief Rabbinate as a necessary condition for recognizing the Jewishness of immigrants who are the family members of Jews whose mothers are not Jewish.”

Among this 62 percent of respondents, 34 percent felt such immigrants should be unconditionally recognized as Jewish, while 27 percent felt recognition should be contingent on the completion of a religious conversion, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform [emphasis added].

Importantly, issues of conversion and civil marriage have now become electoral platform planks of mainstream political parties in Israel, including Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Today, more and more conversions are occurring in Israel under the guidance of Conservative, Reform and other non-Orthodox rabbis. Having experienced a conversion that is more warm and welcoming, and less judgmental and demeaning than the Orthodox state process can be, thousands of Israelis are, said Rabbi Sacks, living a “proud Jewish life” in the way they choose to define it. The problem only arises when those converts wish to have a religious marriage in Israel. At that point, as things currently stand, they crash against an unyielding Chief Rabbinate.

The solution to this human tragedy, claimed Rabbi Sacks, is contingent on the recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis’ authority in Israel to conduct both conversions and marriages.

Rabbi Sacks remains confident in the incremental process toward full recognition in Israel of those who elect to convert to Judaism through Reform or Conservative rabbis. There will be pushback from the Chief Rabbinate and the powerful Haredi-Orthodox establishment in Israel that supports it. But, positive change in the conversion process in Israel is within reach.

David Goldberg
David Goldberg

David H. Goldberg, PhD, is the author of eight books on Israel and formerly served as director of research and education for the Canada-Israel Committee and for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

What’s My Motivation? Parshat Korach


A friend posted that her adorable toddler has discovered the magic and wonder of the word, “no.” Apparently, regardless of the question, the answer is always, “no,” spoken loudly, with hands on hips and a defiant twinkle in the eyes. Such is the power of finally having language with which to dissent.

We all go through this stage as we grow. For some of us, it lasts longer than for most, and for others, it never really passes. We all know contrarians who will insist that the sky is not blue because they enjoy the act of arguing too much to acquiesce, even when common sense says otherwise.

As Jews, we understand this compulsion to disagree and to question as a way to advocate for change. As I wrote in my previous Parsha, much of our motivation is for betterment, and that is apparent in our Holy Books.

When we read Parshat Korach in the book of Numbers, we learn that Moses’ first cousin, Korach, is leading a rebellion. He petitions to remove the seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of Moses as leader and Aaron as High Priest, and he gives a superficially reasonable argument: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (16:3).

Moses does not question Korach’s right to argue about this. In fact, Moses begins making arrangements to come to a reasonable resolution. Then comes the kicker: Two of Korach’s followers, Dathan and Abiram, spit in the face of Moses’ efforts at diplomacy and say, “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” (16:13).

Moses is stunned that, yet again, a false memory emerges, this fake news, of how wonderful life was in Egypt. He is so distressed by this bald-faced lie that his diplomacy departs and he ends up, with G-d’s help, dispatching the rebels to an abrupt and sandy death.

The Sages make clear that arguing was not the crime here. For them, it is the motivation behind the argument that determines its righteousness, or lack thereof. “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishnah Avot 5: 21).

In our daily interactions via email, social media, and family conversations, Korach can be a good “check engine” light. What’s going on under the hood? Are we gossiping? Are we tired, sad, lonely, hungry? It’s ok to disagree, as long as our motivations are for good. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

It’s tiring to always have to be the grownup; sometimes our inner toddler comes out. Our culture today is full of off-the-cuff remarks, comments that sting, and trolls who want a laugh. But our problems are not going to be solved by juvenile responses. It will be kindness combined with understanding, and a heart full of well-meaning, that will bring us peace in the tumultuous days to come.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

My Jewish Experience: Creating Allies in the Fight Against Anti-Black Racism


When people see my last name, “Silverstein,” there is no mistaking it: My Jewishness is obvious. But the question is, more often than not, “So, I guess you’re married to a Jew?” I am light-skinned and wear a Star of David, so the assumption that I could not be mixed race is odd. My favorite is when I’m asked, “How did that happen?” While I generally hold my tongue, I often want to respond, “how did your parents conceive you?” to point out how ridiculous that question is.

My parents with me and my sister, Kitchener, 1992; Sybil, Akilah, Barry, Asha

While I realize there isn’t an overwhelming number of people who look like me within the tight-knit Jewish community, we exist and we’re not going away.

The questions started even before I was born. “I don’t know if we can be seen in a restaurant together, and what would you do with the children?” My grandfather had – let’s call them “questions and concerns” – when my father, an Ashkenazi Jew, introduced my Black mother, who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to his family.

My parent’s wedding, Guildwood, 1987, Sybil Allen & Barry Silverstein

I can comprehend his disappointment at her not being Jewish, but I can’t help but wonder that if she were white, would the concern of being “seen” have come up?

I was raised in the Caribbean in a predominantly Black society, and the only remnants of a Jewish community are a synagogue and cemetery from the 1700s on the sister island of Nevis. I visited Canada at least once a year and would spend lots of time with my father’s extended family. I have many wonderful memories of Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and trips out to London, Ont. to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins.

Me, my sister and my cousins, Kitchener, 1995; Asha Allen-Silverstein, Drew Silverstein, Kate Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein

I have a wonderful relationship with my father and his family. Even my grandfather came around. After he passed away, I was overwhelmed helping to clean up his apartment, decorated with numerous photos of me, my sister, and her son, his first great-grandson, his absolute favourite.

Me and my grandfather, Toronto, 2014; William Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein
Me, my baby sister and my grandmother, Kitchener, 1992; Roma Zwickle, Asha, Akilah

When I returned to Canada and completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to learn more and become more involved in the Jewish community. A Jewish coworker told me about Birthright Israel, and I was accepted on a trip in the spring of 2017.

I was nervous at first, assuming I would be the only Black participant. The voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had never gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah.

These fears were mostly unfounded. I wound up having a wonderful experience, and even celebrated my bat mitzvah on Masada. Meeting an Ethiopian Jewish woman and seeing many other ethnicities represented in Israel opened my eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people. And while I was the only Black participant on my bus, at least 15 others were from mixed marriages. I subsequently led a Birthright trip two years later.

Almog Tamim, Barak Berkowitz, Akilah Allen-Silverstein, Max Marmer (BirthRight, Israel, 2018)

My decision to lead a trip stemmed from my gratitude at being given such a wonderful gift, one that allowed me to develop a Jewish identity and be proud of my heritage in a way I did not understand before. I wanted to ensure no one feels like an outsider, and to remind them that being Jewish does not mean the same thing for everyone. I recently joined the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada’s youth leadership counsel.

This is my story, but I’ve haven’t always felt as accepted as I let on. Many people in the community still don’t see me as Jewish, and when they do, it’s only because I’ve had to explain my existence.

Instances of blatant racism towards Black people are still far too prevalent. I was recently getting to know a new friend. She’s Jewish and has lived in Thornhill for 15 years after emigrating from Israel with her husband and son. She adapted quickly to the community and had many friends and relationships. But when she and her husband divorced, and a few years after she began dating a Black man, she was shocked by the hurtful and racist comments and responses she received from many Jewish friends who she had previously thought were open-minded, kind and accepting.

Late last year, I attended a diversity and inclusion workshop where a Jewish lawyer spent considerable time venting her frustration and shock towards the openly and unapologetic vocal racism her parents frequently expressed towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour).

Why is this behaviour so troubling? As a community, we have suffered immense trauma, oppression, and discrimination in the form of antisemitism. What group understands better how propaganda, harmful stereotypes, and systematic forms of discrimination and dehumanization can lead to unimaginable horrors?

We have, in many ways, become an insular society that prides itself on protecting and preserving our cultural heritage and religious traditions. This is beautiful, and many aspects of such a tight-knit community fill the stories my father tells me of his upbringing in London’s Jewish community.

However, Ashkenazi Jews in North America have benefitted immensely from their “white-passing” privilege, ensuring that they have been able to bypass certain systemic forms of racism which have disenfranchised BIPOC. As a Black Jewish woman, I cannot help but feel hurt and frustrated at the overwhelming silence from the Jewish community on most issues of race and the overt perpetuation and participation of racist behaviours towards Black people in particular.

Our Jewish teaching of tikkun olam is a concept defined by acts of kindness to repair the world. It’s a fantastic calling and crucial responsibility to which I want my Jewish community to take the lead, and to call out and be true allies against any form of racism against BIPOC. 

While I have, for the most part, been made to feel welcome in many Jewish spaces, I often wonder if I were single and happened to be dating an Ashkenazi Jewish man, would his family accept me in time, as my grandfather had? Would my Blackness be an issue? Would someone in the family still be concerned about being seen with me in public?

I would be remiss not to mention that over the last few weeks, I have been inspired by the numerous posts, personal notes and a true commitment to listening, understanding and being part of the proactive change that I have seen from some of my Jewish peers.

I’m hopeful that meaningful change may come about as true allies are developed with friends who can support, fight for, and work to undo the systemic racism and oppression still facing BIPOC. As someone who proudly identifies as a Black Jewish woman, I am asking you to take a hard look in the mirror and decide which side of history you want to be on moving forward.

My dream is to see both of my communities united in the fight for equality, liberation and the right of self-determination for all.

Akilah Allen-Silverstein

Akilah Allen-Silverstein lives in Toronto. She is a Certified Financial Planner, passionate about community engagement, gardening, cooking, exploring the outdoors, and travelling.

JUBAS-MALZ: ‘Never Again’: Jews for Black Lives


As a teenager, my Zaide, Don Jubas, made headlines when he refused to enter a skating rink after his Black friend, Harry Gairey Jr., was denied entry. While a seemingly small act, his story influenced my perspective as a Jew and emphasized the necessity to combat racism in all forms. Today, I see this anti-racism work as core to my own Jewish identity. 

When I was younger, I learned about the Holocaust and white supremacy while in elementary school, and was unnerved to think someone would want to hurt me because of my Jewish heritage. We were partly exposed to these ideas through books like The Diary of Anne Frank or Hana’s Suitcase. Sometimes it was through guest lecturers at school assemblies. I cannot recall specifics beyond the sentiment, but I do remember each speaker reliably using the phrase, “Never again.”

“Never again” is a vow – made among Jewish and non-Jewish communities – to prevent another Holocaust. 

The discrimination afflicting the Black community now is reminiscent of events from our own history. Recently, protests have erupted across continents following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man choked and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. This is unfortunately one instance in a pattern of police brutality toward Black Americans, and against the backdrop of Black oppression faced over the last several centuries. The global response has brought together people from the United States, Canada, Japan, and several European countries to demand police reform and broad institutional changes to end anti-Black racism. 

As Canadians, we sometimes compare ourselves favourably to the United States, believing that we are not as afflicted by racism as our southern neighbours. Not only is that wrong, but it diminishes the urgency needed to tackle white supremacy in our own communities. A report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that Black people were over-represented in police statistics, making up 28.8 percent of use of force cases, 36 percent of police shootings, 61.5 percent of deadly use of force encounters, and 70 percent of fatal police shootings. Yet, Black Torontonians comprise only 8.8 percent of the city’s total population. A deep-seated, or systemic, racism reaches far beyond police encounters, and affects Black Canadians’ income and employment status. Through the Indian Act, the starlight tours, and ongoing governmental policy, we also see systemic racism towards Indigenous communities in Canada.

What is happening to members of the Black community looks different than what we white Jews have experienced. But the foundation – the seed beneath the soil – is the same. White supremacy is white supremacy is white supremacy. And we should be infuriated by all of it.

But change is possible, and we can play a crucial role in it. 

My Zaide’s story always ended when he and Harry left the rink. It was not until he passed that I learned what had happened, in a memoir by Harry’s father, Harry Gairey Sr., a civil rights activist at the time. Motivated by his son’s experience, Gairey Sr. approached his alderman and requested a meeting with Toronto’s city council. Gairey Sr. presented his case for racial justice, arguing that Black Canadians must receive the same rights as other citizens if they are also to be subject to conscription. Soon after, the City of Toronto passed a landmark ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on race, creed, colour, and religion. Gairey Sr. acknowledges the role of non-Black community members in his victory, remarking that, “I was the man that caused that ordinance to be passed, with the help of the good White people of Toronto.” 

Our efforts are essential. As non-Black folks, we must listen when Black Canadians tell us about their encounters with racism, amplify their voices, and provide them opportunities to speak about their experiences. 

“Never again” means that these tragedies should not ever happen – in any form – to anyone. There is no asterisk. Harry Gairey Sr.’s experience shows us that we can make the progress we need and ensure discrimination does not define the generations that come after us. And right now, our Black neighbours need our help responding to police brutality and other manifestations of systemic racism. Their battle is ours and no fight is too small.

Here is a short list of educational resources and actionable items we can use to get started: 

Daniel Jubas-Malz

Daniel Jubas-Malz is a graduate of the Master of Public Health program at the University of Toronto. Through his writing, he hopes to encourage thoughtful dialogue and the development of open spaces where challenges can be identified and solutions co-created among communities.

BABINS: Judaism will survive social media


Let’s reframe the question. 

You hear it, always a problem, all the time. The 2013 Pew study (titled “A Portrait of American Jews” – though it’s become so widely cited in this discussion that I could just call it “the Pew study” and would be generally understood) confirmed what some have suspected for a long time – young Jews, to the naked eye, just aren’t interested in Judaism anymore. 

We’ve survived pogroms and persecution, oppression and genocide, discrimination and terror. We’ve survived the Romans and the Babylonians, the Nazis and the Soviets, and everyone else who tried to wipe us out. But Facebook and smartphones are going to destroy Judaism.

Shul attendance among Gen Y and Z is in decline. Day school enrollment is declining. Intermarriage – the boogeyman of Jewish assimilation – is up. 

Put simply, we’re losing what being Jewish is all about. So they tell us. 

A few quick points about those issues, before we reframe. 

I think if we wish to keep these institutions alive – as the handwringing seems to indicate – we need to examine why they are in decline. 

The Jewish middle class, along with the rest of the middle class, is being financially squeezed like never before. Wages are stagnating while the cost of living rises. Synagogue membership is expensive, and Jewish day school tuition is, generally speaking, costlier than a university degree. If we want these institutions to stay alive, we need to make them affordable to the people who are increasingly unable to afford it. 

Another quick point: we need to address how we discuss Judaism in our own homes. You cannot lament the collapse of synagogues then attend 3 days a year, for less than 2 hours. If you, in front of your children, justify your Judaism with the language of obligation, don’t act surprised when your children don’t feel joyful about Judaism. 

But, like I said, I wanted to reframe the question. 

Because Judaism, and the Jewish people, are not going away. What we are seeing is a slow and gradual redefining of what Jewishness is and means. 

It’s happened before. The definition of Jewishness has been in a state of near-constant evolution throughout our history.   

Until the Temple was destroyed, Judaism took the form of (largely) animal sacrifices and burnt offerings. Rabbinic Judaism, the kind we practice in the West, developed as a panicked, last ditch effort to save Judaism altogether.

The Hasidic movement only arose around 300 years ago. The nationalistic Zionism that led to the creation of the physical state of Israel only began in earnest in the late 19th Century. 

These massive synagogues with thousands of members, and these days schools, would be virtually unrecognizable to the majority of our ancestors. They are a product of 20th century Judaism and if they fade and fall, they will be replaced by something else. 

The question of what being a Jew means is in flux, and it always has been. 

Today, Jewish identity among young people takes many forms. Some of us “find religion” and join a Hasidic movement and some of us resentfully accompany their parents to shul, participating as minimally as possible “until we’ve been here long enough to go home.” 

Some young Jews take up a community spirit and join Jewish fraternities or sororities, leadership in a campus Hillel, or any of the other alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. Some avoid organizations entirely. 

Some young Jews take the values inherent in Judaism and turn it into activism. Some of us fight against anti-Semitism, some of us fight against racism, some of us fight for economic equality. Some of us fight for Israel, some of us try and hold Israel accountable, and yes, some of us fight against Israel. All rooted in a deep Jewish identity. 

And yes, some of us just like bagels and smoked meat, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Spaceballs and summer camp. Some of us are culturally Jewish. 

The question, in truth, is one for you, dear reader. The question is not “will Judaism survive the millennials?” and it never has been. The question for you is “what do I want Judaism look like in 500 years, and how will I do my part to make that happen?”

We will survive, we always do. It’s up to us to decide how.

Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.

STARKMAN: Where is the Outrage to ‘Simply Following Orders?’


Of all the disturbing images and incidents we have witnessed since the brutal murder of George Floyd was broadcast to the world, of all the unbearable acts of cruelty caught on camera and the revolting and racist statements made in the days following, there is one official comment that seems to have gone undetected and unremarked by the global Jewish community.

It is one that we should have noticed, and responded to with profound outrage.

The comment was made in the aftermath of the incident in which an elderly Black Lives Matter protester in Buffalo, N.Y. was shoved to the ground by two police officers and left by the offenders and their colleagues, prone and bleeding on the ground.

It was an appalling act which led to the suspension of the two police officers involved. Upset by this suspension, 57 members of the city’s Emergency Response Team resigned in protest.

As explanation for their violent response to a peaceful protester, a police representative, quoted in USA Today, clarified, “Our position is these officers were simply following orders…they were simply doing their job.”

This is the comment that should raise a shiver of alarm throughout the collective Jewish consciousness. This is the phrase that all Jews understand in our blood and bones to be the epitome of horror: “They were simply following orders.” It is a phrase which, more than any other, so infamously encapsulates the absolute evil of the Holocaust.

And now, as the world remains on a COVID-induced pause and people have the time to really see and understand the too-often fatal injustices endured by Black communities in the U.S. and around the world, this phrase is being used to defend an indefensible act of cold-hearted violence by police.

Perhaps it was due to the offhand nature of this comment – included in a broader statement on an act of shameless abuse – that this particular remark was overlooked. I feel certain, however, that if the context were different, these words would have been treated as blasphemy, and set the Jewish world on fire.

I understand our community’s reluctance to criticize the police. After all, our good relationship with law enforcement is a relatively recent achievement. We know, or at least our forebears knew, what is felt like to be hunted.

But the world has changed. Today, we count on the police to keep our community safe. They guard our schools, community centres and synagogues. In a world where armed gunmen have not hesitated to kill Jews in our communal spaces, our ties to the police are precious, and we want to cultivate and safeguard them.

At the same time, we must recognize that the very same people who make us feel safe and protected instill growing fear in Black communities. Their experiences with the police too often lead to violence and, as in the case of George Floyd, death. Black children are schooled in how to respond to police by parents anxious to keep them safe from the deadly weapons of law enforcement.

It’s a difficult circle to square. But we cannot as a community feel truly safe until every community is truly safe. And when a phrase used to excuse the most horrifying mass genocide in human history is employed in the service of police brutality, it’s time we take notice. We know where this line of thinking leads.

It is not too late to cry out against this atrocity. It is never too late to rage against injustice. And, in this difficult time, at this critical moment, we know in our hearts where our community must stand.

And it must never be with those who justify violence because they were “simply following orders.”

Stacey Starkman
Stacey Starkman

Stacey Starkman is a communications professional in the Jewish community. A Tim Horton’s steeped tea enthusiast, she writes about tikkun olam in between sips.

ZARNETT-KLEIN: Making a Difference at York University: A Tale of Appreciation and Frustration


“What can we do to materially improve Jewish student safety and inclusion at York University?”

For six months, this has been the guiding question in my pursuit to make life better and fairer for Jews and pro-Israel students at York. 

In recent days, York University released two anticipated reports. The first was an independent external review by Justice Thomas Cromwell, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada. The second was a report of the Internal Working Group appointed by York University. Each was tasked with examining the events of Nov. 20, 2019.

I have been a York student for seven years. But Nov. 20, 2019 was different. I witnessed first-hand the horrific protests that occurred that night. As a student, I was familiar with the issues at York. But that night, something changed. I could no longer be a bystander. I had to stand up. 

And so began my activism. I conducted hours of research and writing. I posted videos to social media of me speaking on the issue, to raise awareness. I reached out to elected officials, community advocacy organizations, my own personal network, and York’s administration. It seemed that no one was quite sure what to do. 

Let me say that there are good people who want to make a change. Let me also say that these same people often don’t know how to effect that change, or, even if they have an idea, are intimidated into silence.

With the reports now released, my initial thoughts are those of appreciation and frustration. I appreciate the strong education that I have received at York University. I have been fortunate to find many welcoming spaces on campus, including at Hillel York and Hasbara Fellowships Canada. 

I appreciate that York’s administration has expressed its commitment to address key issues, voiced understanding of our concerns, and continues to have meaningful dialogue with our community leaders.

I appreciate that the administration commissioned an independent external review. I was interviewed by Justice Cromwell through my contribution to the submission of a Jewish advocacy organization. I found this process to be both professional and thorough. 

I appreciate that B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre each made submissions to the Cromwell review.

I appreciate the expressed support from several elected officials across party lines, some of whom I had the opportunity to engage over the past several months.

However, I’m also frustrated.

I’m frustrated that only one recommendation adopted by the Internal Working Group references “antisemitism,” and only one recommendation includes the word “Jewish.”

I support the recommended focus on education to address racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism on campus. Yet, I’m frustrated by the lack of a plan to account for people who choose not to engage productively. Education is the carrot, but we’re missing the stick.

I’m frustrated that the Internal Working Group released its recommendations before consulting broadly with students. I understand that the group now intends to welcome feedback from the York community. But I fear that the report’s release may prejudice any advice that is to come.

I’m frustrated that neither report satisfactorily recognizes antisemitism within the specific context of York University. Although antisemitism is not unique to York, it exists at York in unique ways. This includes:

• Social isolation: Jewish and pro-Israel students are made uncomfortable by campus dynamics, causing many such students to retreat from student life.

• Systemic marginalization: Motions by the student union that singularly criticize Israel are adopted in the name of the entire student body.

• Public manifestations, such as the protests last November.

Finally, I’m frustrated that neither report references the mural in the York University Student Centre, which furthers both anti-Israel and anti-Palestinian biases. This mural portrays a Palestinian man preparing to throw rocks at an Israeli village – an unmistakable call to violence against civilians. It casts Palestinians in a negative light, targets Israel, and heightens tensions on campus. This mural stymies open and respectful dialogue.

I hope this marks a turning point. We must continue to advocate for changes at York University. We must ensure proper implementation of the recommendations of these reports.

Today, I am left with the same question as when I started: 

“What can we do to materially improve Jewish student safety and inclusion at York University?”

I hope this question is given further consideration. I am optimistic that, as a York University community and as civil society, we can find the answer. It is time we answer this call to action.

Zachary Zarnett Klein
Zachary Zarnett Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a York University student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.

AVIV: I’ve Had it With Jewish Ignorance…


…and here’s a recent example. As a Jew, I loved the idea of the “Saturday Night Seder.” Over a million people watched it, and the organizers raised more than $3 million for the CDC Foundation. However, as a Jewish educator, I cringed for much of the hour and 11 minutes. Though Billie Porter’s performance was transcendent, there were so many mundane moments with Jewish stars joking about how little they knew or how much they hated their religious instruction. Non-Jews like Rachel Brosnahan, Darren Criss and Josh Groban seemed to know more about Passover traditions than their Jewish counterparts. (Now that’s a good bit.)

Whatever might explain this shtick, it’s not about a lack of pride. Surveys indicate that Jews are flush with it. The 2013 Pew Research Study reported that 94 per cent of American respondents agreed that they are “proud to be Jewish.” Three-quarters said that they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Eighty-three per cent of “Jews of no religion” reported being proud to be Jewish. The numbers in Canada are as strong, if not more so. The 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada recounted that “[t]wo-thirds of Canadian Jews say that being Jewish is very important in their lives, with most of the rest indicating that it is at least somewhat important.”

Pride isn’t the problem. The “being Jewish” part is. 

Even though it happened what seems like years ago, the Seder still resonates with lessons. The Haggadah presents us with the four children as archetypes, clearly privileging the good child. We all want to be like them, wise and questioning. But even the bad child is included in the conversation, and the latter two children, as feckless as they are, are part of the experience – with concrete tips for how to best address their learning needs. No one is irredeemable. No one is unteachable.

The rabbis in the Mishnah thought similarly about the unlearned, or am-ha’aretz. It’s bad to be an am-ha’aretz, but it’s important to stress that being one is not the person’s fault. Their state of mind could be a result of bad schooling or no schooling at all. And even though Hillel said an am-ha’aretz could not be pious (Avot 2:5), he also taught that only the bold can learn and only the patient can teach.

It takes true courage to admit that you don’t know. Perhaps humour helps to lessen the sting of such an admission. Hopefully, there’s a patient teacher on hand to hear that and acknowledge it.

In other words, it’s on educators and schools to fix ignorance. Toronto’s day school system is extensive but largely focused on educating its students and graduating them. Whether all of these schools survive in a post-COVID world remains to be seen, but we have an opportunity to redefine Jewish learning.

In 2005, Jack Wertheimer argued that “[t]he current challenge in the field of Jewish education is to link the silos, to build cooperation across institutional lines and thereby enable learners to benefit from mutually reinforcing educational experiences.” What we did instead was spend 15 years building more silos.

ADRABA, a program I launched with Sholom Eisenstat and Frank Samuels, seeks to address not only the casual acceptance of ignorance in the Jewish community but also the silo problem.

ADRABA blends traditional teaching with technology to enhance learning. How we design curriculum, use space and construct the learning day reflects this forward-looking pedagogy, one that seeks to take learning outside the immediate bounds of the classroom and the traditional school.

For example, in a unit on Bereisheet (Genesis), we integrate a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel and invite a comparison/contrast of the frescos with scripture and commentary. In another lesson, we explore the Israel Museum’s Pessah seder plate collection as inspiration for designing and fabricating our own at a “makerspace.”

We also dedicated an entire curriculum to exploring how Jews eat and what this says about our culture, values and traditions. Once the bounds of the traditional classroom are removed, the possibilities are endless – and the learner drives learning.

When it comes to the silo problem, we have worked intensively to establish partnerships with a diverse roster of Jewish institutions downtown. Our shared goal is simple: We want to provide additional options for Jewish learning for Jewish teens who aren’t already part of “the system.” In a reality where resources are limited, we don’t need to duplicate efforts. We need to maximize them.

Being Jewish and proud is wondrous. But it’s not a shtick, and like the opening improv gambit, it’s only the beginning. When someone says they’re proud to be Jewish, I’m quick to reply: “Yes. And?”

Dan Aviv
Dan Aviv

Dr. Dan Aviv is the Lead Educator and Design at ADRABA (, Toronto’s newest and only blended learning Jewish high school.

A Household Name, and Facing Racism in Society


It’s amazing how quickly the world can change. Nearly two weeks after his death under the knee of a police officer, George Floyd has become a household name and his memory has become the catalyst for a burgeoning anti-racism movement. How are we, as Jews and Canadians, to respond to this moment? What wisdom can our tradition and our history lend us?

We find this in Torah.

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, they shall confess the wrong they have done and make restitution (Numbers 5:5-6).

Ostensibly, this passage is about theft, but the Rabbis assert that it is actually about humanity. For one thing, it teaches that a wrong against a fellow human is also a wrong against God – an expression of our value that people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Further, the Etz Hayim comments that “every breach of faith is a form of theft, stealing another’s trust under false pretenses.” So this text is actually an admonishment of the way that we fail to recognize the image of God in our fellow human beings – how we steal one another’s dignity and treat some people as lesser. This is exactly the discussion that is being called for in our society.

In some ways, the unrest we are watching south of the border is a uniquely American phenomenon, born of slavery and of centuries of discrimination against African-Americans. But let’s not kid ourselves: Racism is not limited to one country.

Canada has a complicated relationship with racial justice issues. On one hand, we live in a society that prides itself on diversity, where you can keep your name and heritage and still be Canadian, and where the streets are filled an incredible rainbow of diversity.

But we also live in a society with a deep history of discrimination. Canada had slavery, both the enslavement of Indigenous people and the importation of African slaves. The numbers were considerably smaller than south of the border, but the practice existed. Canada also has a history of mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples, from forced assimilation, to the restriction of individual liberties, to the tragedy of residential schools.

A history of unaddressed systemic discrimination can only lead to a present that includes systemic discrimination. And that is where we are today. According to recent studies, Black Canadians earn, on average, one-fourth to one-third less than new immigrants who are not a visible minority.

Black Canadians have an unemployment rate five to seven percent higher than other Canadians, and are less likely to be able to obtain a university degree.

Indigenous people experience unspeakable levels of poverty: Four out of every 10 Indigenous children live in poverty. And Indigenous women are far more likely to be victims of violent crime.

Both Black and Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system because of underlying issues like poverty and unequal access to education, and because of their strikingly different treatment in the justice system.

And in just the last few weeks, there have been several notable cases of police violence against Black and Indigenous Canadians, some with tragic results.

In other words, we live in a society that has a racism problem. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed that “there is systemic discrimination in Canada, which means our systems treat Canadians of colour, Canadians who are racialized, differently than they do others.”

The fact that we can say this out loud is an important step forward. The fact that our children study the residential schools, that we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that the Ontario government has pledged money to help the Black community recover from COVID – all these represent steps in the right direction. But they are also reminders that there is much work to be done. 

We Jews have our own history of persecution, which makes us sensitive to this issue. Many in our Canadian Jewish community are the descendants of Holocaust survivors. And our tradition speaks to the importance of upholding the dignity of every human being: As it says in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud (37a), “Anyone who destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed an entire world.”

With those as our values and with this as our history, we need to be a voice for the dignity of our neighbours.

In this moment of transformation, it is important to listen. After all, what higher Jewish command is there than shema – listen? Let us listen to the stories being told in the public square – stories of pain, sorrow, and hope. Let us open our eyes to the lived experience of people of colour, and to the realities of institutionalized racism in our society. And let us, as a society, begin to transform that listening into systemic change that can make a difference in people’s lives.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Rabbi Micah Streiffer is spiritual leader of Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario

Kvetching and 20/20 Hindsight: Parshat Beha’alotecha


In the opening scene of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s highly-strung character Alvy Singer jokes about two elderly Jews having dinner at a resort. One turns to the other and says, “Boy, the food here is really terrible.” The other answers, “And the portions are so small!”

We Jews have a reputation for kvetching, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha.

The Israelites have kvetched in the desert before. Following the Exodus, they cried, “You have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger.” (Exodus 16:3). Moses advocated for his people and G-d sent manna.

This time, the kvetching is different. It happens, not because the people are hungry, but because they are bored. “…the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?”’ (11:4)

As the story progresses, G-d is unimpressed. G-d promises to provide meat until it is, literally, coming out of their noses (11:20). With the meat “still between their teeth,” many Israelites are struck by a plague and the most egregious offenders are killed.

It’s not such a mystery where the chutzpah to complain comes from. Our people have a proud history of creating systems designed to work better than before. The entire Talmud is filled with arguments around how to make Judaism and the world better.

As Rabbi Jonathan Saks says, “Judaism is a faith for those who seek to change the world… (it)is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be…to make a difference, to change lives for the better, to heal some of the scars of our fractured world.”

The most baffling part of the parsha is not the complaining, but that, as justification for wanting to have a more diverse diet, the Hebrews hark back to when they were slaves: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…” (11:5). Are the Israelites really saying that they would trade their freedom for fish?

We have to remember that for centuries, these people were slaves. Being a slave is a little like being a child: You don’t have much power but the basics are provided for you. In contrast, being a free adult is accompanied by great responsibility. It can be scary and exhausting. As adults we often yearn for the simplicity of childhood. We refer to years past as the “good old days.” We forget that childhood is chock full of its own difficulties, anxiety and fears.

All the more so when we speak of society. It may seem that 50 years ago, things were better. We remember a simpler, sweeter, more wholesome time. We forget it was also a time of bitter turmoil: Wars, racism, crime, sexism. For some, just being who they were was a criminal offence. Our memories are precious but sometimes they fool us and paint the past with sentimentality.

In our world today, there are some systems that are still not working and we struggle to come to terms with that. It is tempting to stay in innocence, to live, as they say, with the devil you know. But that is not a full life. A life stuck in nostalgia is stunted, cowardly, and ultimately will rot. The solution is not just to yearn for times past, but to face forward with a brave heart; to strive for justice, have faith, and continue our difficult journey toward the Promised Land.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

BABINS: Why I Marched


On Saturday, May 30, I walked from my apartment in downtown Toronto to Christie Pits Park (it took me over an hour on foot) to join with thousands in protest of the (recent) murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her 24th floor balcony during an interaction with the Toronto Police, the details of which are still forthcoming, and far too many other Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). 

As I approached Christie, I saw hundreds of people walking the same way, carrying signs and, yes, wearing masks. 

Before I begin, please do not dismiss this protest as “dangerous in the time of COVID.” The organizers of the demonstration made very clear that they would be making it as safe as possible – masks and hand sanitizer were available – and nearly everyone I saw was wearing a mask. A friend of mine marched with her bicycle basket full of water bottles and hand sanitizer taped to the side. 

Was it as safe as sitting at home, in the dark, covered in hand sanitizer? No, but we’re trying to do something here. 

The significance of starting this protest in Christie Pits was not lost on me, though I’m not sure it was fully clear to many present. 

In 1933, Christie Pits was the site of a long and brutal riot following a baseball game between the predominantly Jewish and Italian Harbord Playground team and the predominantly White St. Peter’s Church team. After the final out, the Toronto Swastika Club, which, I assure you, was a real entity in 1933, unveiled a massive blanket with, you guessed it, a swastika on it. The Jewish and Italian players rushed them in anger, and thus began a six-hour riot. 

Solidarity with the oppressed, and fighting against fascism, racism and hatred are values baked into the history of Christie Pits Park. 

So why did I leave my comfortable apartment, and my comfortable existence, to potentially endanger myself. 

Not only is the Big Rona still a concern, but similar demonstrations all over the United States have become violent, with the police – who are much more heavily armed and armored than the protesters themselves – clashing with protesters and firing at journalists. The Toronto Police officers present, on the other hand, did not come heavily armored, and were stoic and cautious. This could easily have not been the case. 

So why did I march? Why did I risk it for something that doesn’t target me? 

I marched for my friends, and their families: people of colour who have been targeted, stalked, harassed and worse, for no reason but the colour of their skin. I marched to help them carve out another inch of a world where that is not the case.  

I marched because I can risk it, because I have the privilege to not be targeted. I’m a short, white-skinned man, and I will never be at the same risk, for doing the same thing as black and Indigenous peoples in this country. I am not seen as a threat to law enforcement. If I commit a crime, I am much more likely to be arrested and face trial rather than be killed. 

I marched because I am Jewish. “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live in the land that G-d has given you” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and I marched because I am commanded to pursue justice. I marched because we are taught that to take a life is to destroy a world, and I’m not interested in world destroying. 

I marched because even though I was scared of being exposed to the coronavirus and because I was terrified of police backlash, we marched for the exact same reason we locked down – to save lives. Pikuach nefesh. We locked down our society to hopefully save lives from a virus. We marched to hopefully save lives from police brutality and racism.  

This pandemic is a moment for our society to examine itself and ask not “when can we get back to normal” but instead, ask the question “how can we come out of this better than we went into it?” We need to make sure that the society we locked down to save is better for all of us, and that nobody, nobody gets left behind. 

I marched so that hopefully, one inch at a time, we stop leaving people behind.

Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.

BLOCK: Questioning Our Own Attitudes, Whether at York or Concordia


An independent report by Justice Thomas Cromwell on a violent confrontation that took place at York University on Nov. 20, 2019 was well described in the CJR edition of June 2. On that date last autumn, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) disrupted an event organized by Herut Canada in which Herut had invited Israel Defense Forces reservists to speak. Both clubs were sanctioned by York. The altercation was indeed very violent, with both sides expressing concern for physical safety.

Cromwell noted that “especially in the United States, universities have been exploited by controversial speakers who see the schools as prestigious and inexpensive venues.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Concordia University faced a seemingly similar situation when Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver a speech sponsored by Hillel Concordia on Sept. 9, 2002. I was present at that event and can offer some context.

I was also in Israel in March 1996, a few months after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It was common knowledge then that Netanyahu had done what he could to incite people to oppose the accord that Rabin was to sign with Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu and right-wing conservatives saw the Oslo Accords as a giveaway to Israel’s enemies. Netanyahu himself said that Rabin’s government was “removed from Jewish tradition…and values.”

In plain language, they were not real Jews.

The anti-Rabin, anti-peace rallies were ubiquitous throughout Israel. Labour was compared to Nazis; Rabin portrayed in the crosshairs of a gun, in a coffin, or a hangman’s noose, was compared to Hitler.

If we are to openly discuss hate speech directed at Jews, can we put such events on the table as well?

Hillel’s invitation to Netanyahu seemed like tacit support – a political statement. Clearly, it was seen as – let’s say – provocative. To be fair to Hillel, the group subsequently seemed to have changed its views and adopted a more inclusive approach.

The situation at York was quite different. Held some 17 years after the Concordia incident, there isn’t much question about Herut’s position here. Herut, or the “freedom” party, is not devoid of controversy. Founded in 1948 as a right-wing nationalist political party, it was denounced at the time by prominent Jews, mainly on the left, as “fascist,” even “terrorist.” Herut was mainstreamed when it merged with the Likud party in 1988.

And what of the Jewish Defence League, which was asked by Herut to provide “security” at the York event? The JDL has been characterized as a violent, anti-Arab Jewish nationalist organization. Following an internal review, York banned the Canadian director of the JDL from its campuses.

Defending Herut’s right to hold such an event should pose a special problem for Jews, not just for York. The question of religious-based campus organizations itself requires some focus. We are living in a world where we see the rise of religious nationalism, be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish, and now Hindu. Encouraging students to congregate among their own exclusively may be at the heart of the question, the result of which we only see when it breaks out into open conflict.

Where I work, we have an annual Trip for Tolerance, where students of any persuasion or background make a trip to a Holocaust memorial museum. But it is never meant to be “weaponized,” as Americans would say, merely to call out antisemitism. 

On the matter of the IDF, I found my own family in Israel divided, post-1967. One cousin spoke only of the need for security, and of anti-war proponents as “naive.” On the other side, my kibbutznik relatives decried the militarization of Israel, and that they were told to spy on their Arab neighbours with whom they used to share the tilling of the soil.

We are not in Israel. We can afford a broader perspective, one that examines our own attitudes and questions the behaviour of those who claim to represent us, or speak on our behalf.

We as Jews know all too well that right-wing extremist organizations invoke “freedom” as their primary interest and decry the limiting of their speech or behavior, or both. As Jews, we need to apply that same test to our own.

Stephen Block
Stephen Block

Stephen Block teaches political philosophy and Propaganda Studies at Vanier College in Montreal. Brought up in a Zionist tradition, he has turned his attention to Middle East peace advocacy.

MENDELSOHN: Indigenous Land Acknowledgments – A Jewish Version


For the past several years, Canadians have begun events with an acknowledgment that the land upon which the occasion is taking place was once the “traditional territory” of an Indigenous nation. This is done as part of an effort to raise awareness of our county’s past – of how it harmed Indigenous people and how, as a country, we must create reconciliation – an attempt to name and repair the harm.

These acknowledgments have been made by Canadian Jews as well, at shul during services and other occcasions. During Shabbat services a few months ago, I was struck by how we, as Jews, have a unique perspective on this issue. As Jews, we know what it means to lose one’s land, to be persecuted, and to be a minority religion and culture. We also understand that the wounds of oppression and displacement do not end with the person who suffered the initial trauma. We know the damage of the Holocaust didn’t end with liberation, or with the State of Israel. There are second and third generation reverberations and trauma on individual and collective levels.

Similarly, the pain of Indigenous people didn’t end with an apology from the prime minister or the closing of residential schools. It lasted for many generations and continues. While most of our ancestors were nowhere near North America at the time of the initial attacks on Indigenous people, we are still obligated to work for justice as Canadians who benefit from the land and its resources.

The combination of my Jewish obligation to work for justice and hearing land acknowledgements week after week in shul made me feel a need for a ritualized, Jewish version of the land acknowledgment, which I wrote and I am sharing here. 

Illustration by Irv Osterer

Like traditional Jewish declarations, this Jewish version of an Indigenous land acknowledgment begins with a kavanah – an intention, and includes Torah study. The traditional formulation, “here, I am ready and prepared,” is used for intentions that precede action, and so is appropriate here, since a land acknowledgment is intended to spur us to concrete action.

The phrase “for the sake of unification” comes from Kabbalistic formulation of intention originated by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century and reminds us to hope for a country where we are unified and free of divisions and discrimination:

הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן \ מוּכָנָה ומְזַמֶּנֶת לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת הַכָּרָת רִבּוֹנוּת הָאָרֶץ לֶשֶׁם יִחוּד.
וּנְטַעְתִּים, עַל-אַדְמָתָם; וְלֹא יִנָּתְשׁוּ עוֹד, מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם אָמַר, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיך
(עָמוֹס ט:טו).
וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ: כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִ (וַיִּקְרָא כה:כג).

Here we are, ready and prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the land as we are commanded for the sake of unification.

As it is written: God said I will plant them on their land and they will no longer be removed from their land which I gave them. (Amos 9:15).

The land shall not be sold permanently because the land is Mine, since you are all immigrants and resident-settlers according to Me (Leviticus 25:23).

The phrasing that recognizes the Jewish perspective was first used by educator Sarah Shamirah Chandler at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto in 2018. The text includes wording, since updated, from the City of Toronto’s Land Acknowledgment and the nations mentioned are specific to Toronto.

Land Acknowledgment – הַכָּרָת רִבּוֹנוּת הָאָרֶץ

This land is the traditional territory and sacred land of many nations including: the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. It is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Williams Treaties signed with multiple Mississaugas and Chippewa bands. This territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

Though we as Jews have also suffered from land and cultural displacement, we acknowledge the ways in which we, as non-indigenous people in this land, have benefited from colonialism, former and ongoing, which has hurt and oppressed First Nations peoples. We ask for their forgiveness. We are ready and prepared to take action to promote a just reconciliation.

Placing this acknowledgment in the context of Jewish ritual and tradition makes explicit the connection between our obligations for justice as Canadians and our particular worldview and experiences as Jews.

Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is a university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.

CHERVINSKY: They came to erase us, we lived, let’s party — A Jewish Lens on Pride

As Jews, we understand the role of celebrations as moments of remembrance and learning. Our holidays commemorate the struggles and the victories. We memorialize the valiant victims and the fighters. We do this because we understand that collective memory is our best unifier and our key to survival.

As Pride season begins during this time of pandemic, our Queer Jewish communities are working hard to preserve the memory and celebrate the hard-fought freedoms we have achieved. Unlike other minority groups, most LGBTQ+ people aren’t born into a family that teaches and celebrates the important milestones of their queer identities. 

Larry Kramer z”l  – a prominent gay, Jewish activist who recently passed away after decades of leadership on AIDS and other LGBTQ+ struggles – once said: “I don’t think you can be a people until you have a history. I know our history, and maybe because other people don’t they feel not a part of anything.”

As Jews we understand this implicitly. Now, as the LGBTQ+ community re-envisions Pride, it is important that we reflect on our history, our victories, and the substantial work left to achieve.

Just 20 years ago, LGBTQ+ issues were almost taboo within Jewish institutions. At CHAT, Canada’s largest Jewish high school, the only sign of support for queer youth came from a single teacher who conspicuously wore a rainbow kippa and who suffered derision and backlash from Religious Studies teachers. Today, the world has changed and the Jewish community has changed with it.

Flagship Jewish institutions like JF&CS and major congregations are now a regular part of Pride celebrations across Canada. JCCs and Federations organize activities for LGBTQ+ community members. In 2017, CIJA, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations, founded its LGBTQ+ Advisory committee to build bridges between the Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities. The committee has put its weight and expertise behind supporting security protection of LGBTQ community institutions, enshrining hate-crime protection for trans* people in law, and reforming Canada’s discriminatory gay blood ban. 

Israel, too, has become a leader in LGBTQ+ rights by embracing trans* Israelis in the IDF and becoming a hub of tolerance in the Middle East. A cursory trip to Tel Aviv shows that, in at least some parts of Israel, LGBTQ+ life is thriving.

With all this progress it has become easy—too easy—for our community to become complacent. The reality is that while our community is a relatively friendly place for LGBTQ+ people, there is still a lot of work to do. From a leader’s continued advocacy for “conversion therapy”, to explicitly homophobic election ads in Israel, to the continued murder of trans* people and the rise of homophobic governments in Eastern Europe, Asia and across North and South America—we have a lot of work left ahead of us.

As a Jewish community, we rightly hold up Israel’s relative embrace of LGBTQ+ rights as a point of pride but, if we are to do so, we must also hold Israel accountable for its failures. Israel continues to lack civil marriage, continues to face battles with surrogacy rights, continues to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in smaller communities, and continues to allow Ultra-Orthodox parties to use every mechanism to block progress on gay rights. 

As we celebrate Pride month, we would do well to remember that this celebration is like many Jewish holidays; Indeed it certainly embraces the philosophy of “they tried to erase us, we survived, let’s party”, but these occasions also must serve as a reminder of history and strengthen our resolve to build a better world. 

As we turn the calendar page from Jewish Heritage Month (May) to Pride Month (June), let us take the opportunity to celebrate, but also rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. 

Tom Chervinsky

Tom Chervinsky is an advocacy and communications professional in Toronto where he is an active volunteer with Ve’ahavta and CIJA. In 2017 he helped found CIJA’s LGBTQ+ advisory committee.

If you are looking for support or ways to become more involved in the LGBTQ+ Jewish community, check out the following resources as a starting point:

CIJA’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee – CIJA works to support and build bridges with the LGBTQ2+ community, whether on Parliament Hill, at Pride festivals, or in communities across Canada. –

Eshel Toronto – A community organization for Orthodox and formerly Orthodox LGBTQIA+ people and their families. –

Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto – LGBTQ at the J strives to be the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ Jewish community, providing queer Jews opportunities to gather, celebrate and thrive. (Other JCC’s have occasional programming as well). –

Jewish Family & Child Service (Toronto) – JF&CS offers counselling, groups and workshops to individuals and families. –

JQT Vancouver – JQT Vancouver is a Jewish Queer and Trans* group dedicated to creating connections and seeking space to celebrate our intersectional identities by queering Jewish space and Jewifying queer space in Vancouver, BC. – Wider Bridge – North American organization working to create equality in Israel by expanding LGBTQ inclusion in Israel, and equality for Israel by cultivating constructive engagement with Israel. –

RUDNER: Train Schedulers, Accountants, and Ordinary Men


A few minutes past midnight on June 1, 1962 – 58 years ago today – Adolf Eichmann, among the chief architects of the Holocaust, was hanged at a prison in Ramla, Israel. The execution, in accordance with the decision of the Jerusalem District Court and upheld by the Supreme Court, was the only time capital punishment was imposed by Israel. 

In the decades that have past, it’s become difficult to speak of Eichmann without immediately thinking of the phrase that was popularized by the most famous of the reporters who covered his trial. Hannah Arendt expected a monster. Instead, what she saw was the Banality of Evil.

But what was on display in that courtroom was not banality but rather the all-too-human capacity for evil. 

Eichmann knew he was facing the noose and so performed for his life, attempting to transform his role as one of the architects of Jewish annihilation to that of a simple bureaucrat; from enthusiastic participant to mere functionary. He portrayed himself as the man who simply followed orders. Yes, the Holocaust happened. True, he did not like Jews. But no, he didn’t think their annihilation was a good idea.

Adolf Eichmann -1942

But he understood the nature of those orders all too well. He was not only the man who arranged the transportation of Jews to the death camps, but also the cold-blooded functionary who felt no guilt at facilitating the fate that he knew awaited them.

Indeed, in 1957, in an interview with Willem Sassen, Eichmann offered this revealing self-portrait: “The cautious bureaucrat, that was me, yes indeed. But … this cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical [Nazi] warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright…”

So, there was nothing banal about Eichmann. On the contrary, he received his orders and executed them with creativity and zeal. He ultimately admitted that his phrase, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction” was not a bland assertion about the enemies of the Reich, but rather a specific reference to Jews.

The similarity between Eichmann and Oskar Gröning, the so-called accountant of Auschwitz, is that both were parts of an elaborate mechanism of murder. But Eichmann was a piston in the engine while Gröning was a cog in the odometer.

To Eichmann and Gröning, we can also add the names of men like Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, a former policeman who presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Or the “ordinary men” of historian Christopher Browning’s book on Police Battalion 101, who, when given the choice of whether to participate in the murder of Jewish civilians, chose unanimously to do so because murdering defenseless men, women and children was “the new normal.”

None of these men were born evil, yet they came to be evil – and to perform evil deeds – because it was advantageous, or at least unremarkable, to do so. Contrary to the proverb, it is not good intentions that pave the road to hell, but bad decisions.

Arendt concluded that it was possible for evil to be done by people who were themselves not evil, but such a conclusion lets Eichmann – and humanity – off the hook.

Perhaps it was necessary for Arendt to see things as she did in order to portray totalitarian systems as murderous frameworks that require nothing more from its workers that blind (or bland) obedience. But such a conceit deprives perpetrators of their agency and ignores the evidence of individuals who have risen above the prejudices of their time to do better things, if not always the right thing. Indeed, a 1988 study by David Kitterman found multiple examples of German soldiers who refused orders to murder civilians or prisoners of war. None of these men were punished for their refusal.

So, the lesson of Eichmann and his fellow perpetrators is not that evil represents a barely reachable nadir of human values, or that it is a slippery slope that delivers us quickly from the heights to the very depths. Rather, it is a destination that can be reached along a wide and gently descending staircase, with each step more easily taken than the one before, and with a sturdy handrail in place to give us confidence in our descent.

As Jews, we honour the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to oppose Nazism and refused to be parts of the machinery of genocide. We may argue that their number was too few, but each chose to stand against evil rather than be co-opted by it. And if one person can choose to stand against evil then the choice, no matter how perilous, exists for all of us.

Len Rudner

Len Rudner is a human rights consultant and educator. He is a former director of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

D’var Shavuot 2020, ‘Wither Thou Goest’


Wither Thou goest – I will go.
Wither Thou lodgest – I will lodge.
Thy people shall be my people.
Wither Thou goest – I will go.

The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot is upon us. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. We celebrate by listening to the liturgical poem, the Akdamut, eating dairy products (reminding us that studying Torah is as sweet on our tongue as milk and honey), and engaging in all-night Bible study. We also read the Book of Ruth.

My first exposure to the above passage was via Leonard Cohen’s beautiful rendition. At that time, I thought it was a romantic love song. I’ve quoted it to my husband and, if it registered at all that the words were from our tradition, I assumed they were from the Song of Songs. 

But, no. These are the words that Ruth speaks to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth. The story begins in the land of Moab, a notorious enemy of Israel, where Naomi’s family has settled due to famine.  Naomi’s husband passes away, as do her two sons, and they leave behind two Moabite daughters-in-law. Despite Naomi’s insistence that the girls return to their families, one of them, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi and follows her back to Israel. (Ruth 1:16-17)

It is surprising that Ruth is so attached to her mother-in-law. In traditional Jewish humour, mothers-in-law don’t always fare well – we all know the jokes. But Ruth remains loyal to her mother-in-law and refuses to leave her.

Earlier in the Book of Ruth, we come across the term chesed. This word does not have a direct translation into English. It is sometimes spoken of as mercy or pity, but what it really means is loving kindness. 

The loving kindness between Ruth and Naomi is worth mentioning here because, in these times, it is hard to imagine two people from such different backgrounds intersecting this affectionately. 

For most of us, our internal radar is so perfectly tuned to the way we see the world that other perspectives barely register. Technology allows us to limit our intellectual and emotional intake to sources that align with our point of view.  We express ourselves into echo chambers disguised as social media and hear only what we already suspect is true.

A dissenting perspective is not only unwelcome but we worry it’s wrong and stupid, even hateful or dangerous. It sometimes feels like our very survival depends on holding tight to our world view. This does us a disservice – seeing the world through a lens of fear limits our knowledge and, by extension, our opportunities for growth.

By all evidence, Ruth and Naomi should have been enemies. Instead, these two women banded together, created a family, and loved and learned from one another. Ruth, with Naomi’s support, became the great-grandmother of King David, who ushered in one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in biblical history.

Maybe we have something to learn from these two women who rose out of tragic circumstances, made a choice to trust one another, and left a legacy of kindness. On this strange and difficult Shavuot, when Yizkor is online and we eat our cheesecake in isolation, perhaps we can open our minds and souls to a new way of being and allow thoughts of chesed not just into our hearts but into our deeds.

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a rabbinical student at Jewish Studies Learning Institute.