Synagogues Reinvent High Holiday Services Amid COVID

Sept. 8, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow ascends the bimah on Rosh Hashanah at the Montreal synagogue she leads, it will be in a silent and nearly empty building.

Like many synagogues, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom has decided it is not safe to gather together, and so all the High Holiday services will be virtual this year.

While some rabbis may be negative about “three-day-a-year Jews,” Rabbi Grushcow said she is not one of them.

“I love that feeling of a full sanctuary, of people being there with each other and for each other,” she told the CJR. “There’s no question I’ll miss that.”

While Jews may have participated in Zoom seders over Passover, few thought that Jewish life would be still be online by the High Holidays. But COVID has forced synagogues of all denominations to radically change how and where they will worship this fall.

For some institutions it will mean moving to technology in a way they never envisioned. For others, it means shortened services, outdoors if possible, to reduce congregants’ exposure to each other.

For many synagogues, the priority has been connecting with members in a time of isolation. Rabbi Grushcow’s temple distributed 600 High Holiday kits with a honey cake, a yahrzeit candle and a mizrach – decorative art used to indicate the direction of prayer – to help people transform their homes into sacred spaces.

“We’re trying to create that feeling of connection. That’s what’s at the heart of what people are looking for,” Rabbi Grushcow said.

While Jewish history is long enough to demonstrate that the current situation is not entirely unprecedented, technology is certainly changing the landscape for synagogues, Rabbi Grushcow pointed out.

“We are all working not to reinvent our mission, but the way we deliver it,” she said. “The fact we can use technology is a huge help and there’s a certain openness to doing things new ways that is helpful.”

Rabbi Adam Cutler will be conscious of new technology when he begins Rosh Hashanah services at Adath Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto.

Only about 170 of the synagogue’s 1,100 seats will be filled, to comply with social distancing rules, but the service will be livestreamed to members who do not feel comfortable attending this year.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had been considering the halachic implications of livestream technology in synagogues before the pandemic started, but hastened to issue a ruling in May that approved the use of cameras on Shabbat and holy days.

Individual synagogues can decide whether to adopt the ruling, and after studying the decision and speaking with colleagues, Rabbi Cutler felt it was the right thing for Adath Israel.

“It’s not something we plan on keeping permanently, but it’s there until everyone feels comfortable being present in the shul.”

When leading services, Rabbi Cutler said, “I make a point of noticing the additional people (watching) at home. It means looking at the camera, which is new for me.”

Adath Israel’s services will be shorter in order to limit exposure, and require pre-registration for contact tracing.

Recognizing that people may need more preparation for the High Holidays this year, the synagogue prepared a month-long program of daily videos highlighting different character traits as well as booklets with texts and essays for discussion.

The synagogue parking lot will also be the site of a drive-through holiday experience before Rosh Hashanah to allow children to hear the shofar, eat apples and honey, and symbolically cast away their sins (into an inflatable pool), all while remaining safely in their family’s car.

Like most synagogues that have re-opened, Adath Israel has not restricted people from attending, but suggests that those who are older consider whether they should come to services in person.

“I fundamentally believe that people have the right to their own agency, you can decide what’s right for you,” Rabbi Cutler said.

Still, it will be an unusual experience when Rabbi Cutler enters a sanctuary where only a fraction of the congregants will be in the pews.

“You have to gear yourself up, and realize there are empty seats for appropriate reasons,” he said.

Not every synagogue in Canada is facing the same restrictions. In Halifax, where COVID cases have been low, current health regulations allow groups to occupy 50 percent of a building’s capacity.

Rabbi Gary Karlin, spiritual leader of Halifax’s Shaar Shalom Congregation, estimates his sanctuary will hold up to 150 people, accounting for social distancing, with more accommodated in a tent. The service will also be livestreamed.

Halifax Synagogue
Halifax Synagogue

Rabbi Karlin will also blow the shofar at the Conservative synagogue’s tashlich ceremony, which is held on the city’s boardwalk, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

While it will be a different High Holiday season, with restrictions and masks, Rabbi Karlin who is celebrating his second Rosh Hashanah in Halifax, hears from colleagues about synagogues that will not be able to open at all.

“I feel very fortunate that things are good deal safer in Nova Scotia. I thank God I’m in a relatively safe place.”

Not opening for the High Holidays was not an option for Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, a Montreal Orthodox synagogue that has taken its classes and programs online, but eschews livestreaming on Shabbat and holidays.

Instead, the synagogue will be offering multiple shortened services, indoors and outside, as well as a pre-recorded service featuring the choir and cantor that was produced over the summer.

Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, a member of Shaar Hashomayim’s clergy and president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, will be leading a family service in a tent this year.

“None of us are having children in the building, which is counter to every instinct we have,” she said.

Instead, the synagogue has sent out a High Holiday box with at-home activities for its youngest members, and volunteers have made calls to older members. “There’s a lot of isolation,” said Rabba Finegold. “We want people to know we’re there for them.”

The pandemic has also thrown new light on Jewish home life, she said. “We’ve all spent so much time at home, that’s reinvigorated that home base for many families.”

The synagogue, for instance, made a challah kit for families, who could then participate by Zoom with Rabba Finegold as she and her daughter braided challah and sang Shabbat songs.

“They’re in my kitchen and I’m in their kitchens. That’s a new way of Jewish engagement.”

Rabba Finegold has also been working with families to craft bar mitzvahs and baby-namings that were completely different from what they had envisioned.

“It’s an amazing time of innovation. There’s the silver lining and we have to harness that too.”

While she could never have imagined the restrictions that COVID has placed on people, she said it may also open new avenues.

“To be outdoors in a tent greeting the New Year, maybe there are possibilities there. We’ve invented some pretty engaging things.”

Canadians Sign Up for Global Jewish Pen Pal Program

Aug. 28, 2020 –

By SUSAN MINUK

By early April, the coronavirus pandemic had the world hunkered down in self-quarantine. As people were isolating, Pennsylvania-born Madison Jackson knew the timing was right to launch her passion project: The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program.

Madison Jackson

“The best way to dispel myths about what it means to be Jewish in other countries is to create one-on-one friendships and international Jewish connections where you actually get the chance to learn about Jewish life from someone who lives in a different country than yourself,” Jackson, 22, told the CJR.

To date, 450 people have signed up for the program and 400 matches have been made. Thirty Canadians from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Saskatoon have been paired with Jewish pen pals in Ukraine, Poland, Australia, Mexico, Switzerland, England, Hong Kong, Georgia, the Netherlands, India, and the United States. The youngest pen pal is seven, the oldest, 83.

The idea for the initiative came about in the summer of 2018, when Jackson worked as an intern at the American Jewish Committee’s Central Europe office in Warsaw, after receiving a Goldman Fellowship.

She researched and wrote reports aboutJewish communities in seven Central European countries, and researched and edited content for a book about Polish-Jewish dialogue. After that, she traveled in the region.

“I realized there are Jews living all over the world with so much in common,” she said.

There’s a vetting process in which applicants must state how they learned about the program – whether through their synagogue or a Facebook group.It’s all free and open to Jews of any age who can speak, read and write in English.

The criteria for a match require that people come from two different countries and be no more than two years apart in age, Jackson explained.They also have to sign up for the same form of communication, whether handwritten letters, emails, or video calls.

“We just had our first person sign up from Croatia!” Jackson exclaimed.

The program has garnered attention from synagogues and Jewish youth groups, such as B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) International and Hillel International.

Jackson was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent summers at Camp Ramah inMuskoka, Ont. as a camper and later, as staff.

In the summer of 2014, she travelled to Hungary to attend Szarvas International Jewish Youth Camp, where she met Jewish peers from countries outsideNorth America and Israel. She quickly grew passionate about Jewish life in Europe and India, especially about individuals who were “ecstatic to learn about Jewish traditions and customs they learned from camp…and bring it back to their parents and their local communities.”

This experience led her to pursue her education in contemporary studies in Jewish life. She graduated from Binghamton University in May 2019 with a double BA in Judaic Studies and English.

The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program engages its participants by sending out monthly conversation starters. It highlights a pen pal “Pair of the Month,”and shares Jewish recipes and fun facts from other countries via Facebook and Instagram.

Jackson is also hosting pen pals as guests on her own show, “The Pen Pal Perspective,” aired on Radio Melitz, an online operation that aims to connect Jewish communities, schools, institutions, and projects around the world.

“In addition to matching individuals, I am now matching school classes with Jewish pen pals in another country,” she said.

Jackson is devoting all her time to theprogram, as she was laid off from her job as a program associate at the Cleveland JCC amid COVID.

To learn more, visit the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program on Facebook or @global_jewish_pen_pals on Instagram.

Editorial: Let’s Continue to Save Lives

Aug. 27, 2020

In the Jewish tradition, we are taught that“whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world” – surely a beautiful sentiment embraced by other faith traditions.

And yet, we see very much the opposite today, especially in the reaction of a significant minority both here and in the United States to dangerous fiction that “trumps” truth when it comes to Covid-19.

Alarmingly, more than a few people are either ignorant or think they are invincible,or worse, believe religiously-tinged fairy tales from numbskulls in leadership positions.

Take Ohio state representative Nino Vitale, for example. The Republican has urged his fellow Ohioans to refuse to wear face masks. As he rambled to Newsweekrecently, “When we think about the image and likeness of God, that we’re created in the image and likeness of God, when we think of image, do we think of a chest or our legs or our arms? We think of their face. I don’t want to cover people’s faces. That’s the image of God right there. I want to see it in my brothers and sisters.”

Ordinary Americans have also invoked God, claiming masks interfere with His divinely-designed human breathing apparatus. A study released in late June suggested that White American evangelicals’ attitudes toward the coronavirus pandemic are considerably more relaxed than those of other religious groups.

This might go some way to explaining the fact that the United States has the highest number (per 100,000 people) of Covid cases and deaths in the world.

To date, nearly 180,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, a number that scientists and epidemiologists tell us wasavoidable had people followed the simple hygienic rules by now burned into our brains: keep your distance, wash your hands, and wear a mask – simple rules that Donald Trump was reluctant to mandate.

Worse, Trump seems to treat unnecessary deaths with a shrugging normalcy. Asked a couple of weeks ago about the staggering death rate in his country, he responded, “it is what it is.”

One might assume that members of his own party would be horrified at such a reply. Not so much. A recent CBS poll found 57percent of Republicans felt that a death toll of 176,000 Americans (at the time) was “acceptable.” The same survey found that 73 percent of Republicans believe Trump is handling the Coronavirus pandemic well.

Thankfully, saner heads prevail when the same question is asked across the United States, where 62 percent of voters believe the response is “going badly.” Incredibly,however, that means close to 40 percent of Americans (almost 150 million people) are just fine with Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

In Canada, we are faring much better, even though we have our own “Covoidiots.” Take the recent example of 600 patrons packedshoulder-to-shoulder into a downtown Toronto strip club. Naturally, an employee tested positive for the virus. Now all attendees and employees have to isolate and monitor. Consider also pandemic house parties held across the country, just begging for infection?

The good news, however, is that for the most part, our political leaders, no matter where they stand on the spectrum andunlike their American counterparts, have saved lives by listening to science and taking the best possible advice from those in public health charged with looking after our welfare.

This is not to say problems don’t exist. Finding the right balance between opening our schools and preventing huge spikes in the virus remains a real challenge.

So far, with the customary Canadian sense of following established rules (and a little luck), our pandemic numbers have been trending downward. We need to continue down this path with care and thoughtfulness. We need to continue saving entire generations.

Canada and UNRWA: A Return to First Principles?

By DAVID H. GOLDBERG

For decades, Canadian governments – Liberal and Conservative – have routinely approved generous funding for United Nations agencies, with little apparent thought as to whether taxpayers’ dollars were being applied transparently, or that agency staff were adhering to the UN’s commitment to strict impartiality with respect to Israel and Israel-Arab relations.

Case in point is Canada’s relationship with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since UNRWA’s founding in 1950, support for the agency has remained a core principle of Canada’s Middle East policy, despite UNRWA’s consistent failure to fulfill its mandate to alleviate human suffering and its status as an impediment to achieving a viable solution to the Arab-Israel conflict.

For UNRWA, the term “refugee” refers solely to Arabs displaced from the former Palestine mandate by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Moreover, its prescription for resolving the refugees’ status is their return to their former homes in the former Palestine mandate, including all of pre-state Israel – a condition that is rejected by Israel as a recipe for the destruction of the Jewish state.

UNRWA perpetuates the untenable Palestinian dream of “right of return” rather than working to facilitate the refugees’ permanent resettlement in the countries of their current residence – whether Lebanon, Jordan, England or Canada – as is the UN’s preferred resettlement strategy for all international refugees other than the Palestinians. UNRWA also perpetuates the conflict by grossly exaggerating the number of Palestinians requiring agency support, by including among the 5 million “registered refugees” the children, grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) of Arab refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars. From Israel’s perspective, the only legitimate Arab refugees are the 700,000 who departed the former Palestine mandate in the 1948-1949 War of Independence. Israel calculates that only about 20,000 from this original group of Arab refugees remain alive today.

Other allegations include the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish language and images found in textbooks and curricula used in UNRWA-operated schools throughout the Middle East. There are also the documented cases of Hamas “active sympathizers” employed by UNRWA.

The agency’s defense – that while all local employees are vetted for connections with terrorist groups, UNRWA cannot control the hearts and minds of its personnel – strains credulity, as does its denial of awareness that its schools, medical clinics and ambulances have been used to hide, store, and transport Hamas weapons and armed fighters deployed in terrorist attacks against Israel.

In 2010, the Stephen Harper Conservatives suspended funding to UNRWA over the organization’s links to Hamas. The Justin Trudeau Liberals resumed funding in 2016, with a special focus on social media training and review of UNRWA school curricula. Also, Ottawa’s UNRWA funding would henceforth be overseen by “independent” authorities.

In August 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew all United States funding for UNRWA – more than $360 million – citing the agency’s overt anti-Israel bias. Two months later, Canada allocated $50 million over two years to an UNRWA emergency fund-raising campaign (this was in addition to Canada’s $15 million contribution to UNRWA’s 2018 annual budget.)

Global Affairs Canada explained that the emergency funds would help “bring stability to the region by helping Palestinian refugees cope with poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.” It would also “assist UNRWA with its ongoing efforts to improve neutrality within the agency and its operations.” There is, however, no evidence that concern about agency neutrality, presumably relating to the anti-Israel bias that precipitated the U.S. suspension of UNRWA funding, affected Canada’s funding deliberations in 2018.

If Canada was looking to review its relationship with UNRWA, the opportunity arose early in 2019, with release of a special internal agency investigation that revealed allegations of outrageous ethical and managerial misconduct involving UNRWA’s senior staff.

Canada expressed “concern” about such revelations, as well as its expectation that the UN’s full investigation of UNRWA would be rigorous, fair, accountable and transparent.

Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel, claimed the tepid Canadian response was calculated. Writing in the National Post, she argued that Canada wilfully ignored UNRWA’s ethical and institutional failings as one of the sacrifices of principle Ottawa was making to achieve broader geopolitical ambitions.

According to Bercovici, “[t]he current leadership in Ottawa so covets a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council that it will do anything to secure it, including throwing money at a corrupt organization [UNRWA] that is utterly committed to promoting antisemitism and colludes with Hamas and other unsavoury groups.”

Having recently failed to secure a Security Council seat, will Canada finally challenge the overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel programs of UN agencies such as UNRWA? This could be achieved by joining the United States in totally withdrawing funding for UNRWA.

Alternatively, further Canadian funding could be made contingent on fundamental improvements in UNRWA’s ethical and financial accountability, as well as a sincere and transparent commitment to strict impartiality when it comes to Judaism, Israel and Israel-Palestinian relations.

Redefining its relationship with UNRWA is a good, low-cost step for Canada toward resuming its principled policy approach toward UN agencies like UNRWA, whose important human rights work has been hijacked and politicized by the anti-Israel automatic majority of Arab, Muslim and developing world countries that dominate the UN General Assembly.


David Goldberg
David Goldberg

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

Nazi Monuments in Canada Must be Removed

Aug. 10, 2020 – By BELLE JARNIEWSKI

As Canadians continue to confront the ongoing influence of colonialist monuments in our country, one memorial commemorating the 1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army, initially known as the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division, was recently “vandalized.”

As reported on these pages, graffiti spray-painted on the memorial, located in a private cemetery in Oakville, Ont., read, “Nazi war monument,” which, of course, describes it accurately. The Division was, after all, part of the Nazi Waffen SS. Many of its members were from the region of Galicia and served in the Nazi killing machine under the direct control of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.

In fact, in a speech to this unit in May 1944, Himmler issued a pep-talk to its members: “Your homeland has become more beautiful since you have lost – on our initiatives, I must say – the residents who were so often a dirty blemish on Galicia’s good name – namely the Jews. I know if I ordered you to liquidate the Poles, I would be giving you permission to do what you are eager to do anyway.”

In a bizarre move, Halton Regional Police initially announced it was investigating the vandalism as a hate-motivated offense. Police have since apologized and continue to investigate the event as an act of vandalism.

Another monument in Edmonton memorializes Roman Shukhevych, a Ukrainian nationalist who was one of the commanders of Nachtigall Battalion, and commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which was responsible for the massacre of Jews and Poles. The bust of Shukhevych, which stands at the entrance of the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in North Edmonton, was funded in part by taxpayers through programs designed to promote multiculturalism.

As several have pondered, the bigger question is why such monuments exist on Canadian soil in the first place.

One argument presented in their defense is that they memorialize the fight against Communism. They portray individuals like Shukhevych as national heroes and play down their active and voluntary participation in the murder of Jews and others.

Journalists and scholars who have written articles critical of these monuments have found themselves accused of writing “pro-Kremlin propaganda” and subject to campaigns to discredit them.

For instance, in 2012, some Canadian Ukrainian organizations sent a letter of complaint to the vice-chancellor of Lund University in Sweden regarding Per Anders Rudling, now an assistant professor at the university. Rudling has been researching eastern European nationalism for the past 15 years and his research has been peer reviewed and published in prestigious academic journals.

However, Rudling came under attack for writing about the emerging cult of personality around Shukhevych, as well as pointing out his wartime crimes against Jews and Poles. A number of Ukrainian Canadian groups remain steadfast in their claims that Shukyvych should be remembered as a Ukrainian national hero, and they dismiss any accusations of Ukrainian complicity with the Nazis as “fake news” manufactured by the Kremlin.

In addition to Rudling’s scholarly work, journalists Scott Taylor and David Pugliese, among others, have written about the Nazi monuments, and articles on the subject have appeared on many sites, including Radio Canada International, the Ottawa Citizen, Esprit de Corps, and The Nation. Their assertions have been supported by eminent Canadian historian John-Paul Himka.

Oddly enough, voices from the Jewish community remained silent, for the most part, until the recent “vandalism” in Oakville. Until then, the loudest voices opposing the monuments came from outside the organized Jewish community.

The ongoing existence of these monuments is a clear example of Holocaust distortion. At the most recent plenary session of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) under the German presidency, a statement was issued “condemning all attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of persons who were complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma.”

These monuments are explicit attempts at doing just that, and they must be removed.


Belle Jarniewski
Belle Jarniewski

Belle Jarniewski of Winnipeg is Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. Since 2013, she has served on the federally appointed delegation to IHRA, as a member of its Academic Working Group and the Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial.


For more on this issue, read the latest update from Edmonton by Jeremy Appel in our News section.

The Seth Rogen Drama: We Need Honest Talk About Israel

Aug. 3, 2020 – By ZACK BABINS

Last week, Canadian Jewish actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen, while promoting his new movie, An American Pickle, the saga of a poor Yiddish immigrant to New York City who is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years (based on a quirky story by Simon Rich, available here), discussed his Jewish identity and feelings about Israel.

You may have read about it: Rogen rejected an inherent link between Jewish identity and Zionism, called the idea of Jewish statehood the product of “an antiquated thought process,” and expressed dissatisfaction with the ways he – the son of two kibbutzniks and Jewish summer camp alumnus– was educated when it came to Israel. 

I may disagree with Seth on a few points – I happen to think that as long as everyone else has a state, we should probably have one too – but this much is true: The way that our community teaches young Jews about Israel, Palestine – and the conflict just doesn’t square with historical records – and there is an instinct to exile and dismiss the Jews who ask frank and difficult questions about Israel.

The realities of the Aliyah movements, the British Mandate, the War of Independence, the wars of 1967 and 1973, intifadas, settlements, and countless failed peace processes, are too messy for one op-ed and one day. But in our day schools and summer camps, and our primary educational programs, they are simplified to create a vision of Israel that is blameless, perfect and miraculous – a vision far more naïve and utopian than even Herzl’s. 

“We took a deserted land and made the desert bloom.” “We (out of the goodness of our own hearts) withdrew from Gaza and just look at what they did there.” “We accepted the Partition plan and they didn’t.”  

It wasn’t until my final year of university, and my decision to write a thesis on the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, that I – who had attended Hebrew school for nine years, was active in the local Jewish fraternity, president of Hillel, and had just participated in a Birthright Israel trip – learned, for instance, that the Israeli acceptance of the 1947 partition plan was far from unanimous, with Menachem Begin and the Revisionist Zionist camp calling it “illegitimate.” 

During that year of research and writing, I encountered many pieces of information that directly and forcefully disproved many of the ideas that I had been raised with. I confronted the reality of a real country making political decisions and strategic military calculations.

I felt lied to. On many occasions, I was mere sentences away from abandoning my emotional stake in Israel altogether. On some days, the only thing stopping me from washing my hands of the whole messy falafel was a mentor who encouraged me to embrace the nuances and test my values against them.

Any conversation about the Jewish future has to include a frank, reasonable discussion about the role of Israel and its ability to represent Jews around the world. It is unsustainable for us, as a people, to continue mythologizing a real, complex place and exiling those of us who express dissatisfaction with realities once we learn them. 

After all of that, after the threat of annexation, the continued attack of the rabbinate on progressive values, and much more, I remain a Zionist for this reason: 

I am a Jew, and a Jew in a world that is dangerous and hostile to Jews: Israel, for all its faults, remains a place where Jews can be safe as Jews, an increasing rarity in 2020. While I am relatively safe as a Canadian Jew, I know far too much Jewish history to think that this safety is forever guaranteed.

But a small part of me, in the back of my head, knows that there is a second reason. I remain a Zionist because anything else risks alienation and condemnation. From my friends, my family, the community I grew up and worked in. From the Jewish Twittersphere. 

I’ve been to Israel three times and I’d like to visit again in the future. In pre-coronavirus times, Israel has barred entry to, among others, Diaspora Jewish BDS activists. I’m not interested in taking a 12-hour flight only to get deported from a country that claims to be my homeland. 

My Zionism is nuanced. It is critical, it is measured, and I do my best to keep it in line with history and the values with which I judge every other political issue in my life. But it is not the only thing that makes me a Jew. Far from it. 

I’ve long been party to conversations – and handwringing – about the Jewish future. For a long time, assimilation and intermarriage were the boogeyman. Now, it’s insufficient (right-wing, reactionary, unquestioning) Zionism that gets one labeled as a traitor to the Jews. 

The truth is, when we lie to our kids, they resent the lie as much as they resent us. The truth is, to ensure a Jewish future, we have to tell the truth about the Jewish past. And that means a conversation about Israel that’s rooted in reality and history, not myths and utopias. These questions are not going away, and will only get louder. The truth is, we ignore them – and dismiss young Jews with serious concerns – at our own risk.


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

The New Normal Shul

July 15, 2020 – By MARCEL STRIGBERGER

Synagogues were recently given the green light, or rather, a partial green light, to resume services. This resumption, however, is subject to guidelines and restrictions. How will these new rules change the traditional normal “normal”? I can see it affecting all aspects across the board.

Let’s start with a vital mainstay, the kiddush. After all what is a Shabbat service without a kiddush? After the concluding prayers, we would all make a beeline to the room housing that delectable buffet. In many shuls, the congregants would wait patiently for the rabbi to complete the kiddush blessing and give the go-ahead to hit the food. In others, there was a mass charge, every person for themselves, with scenes resembling the storming of the Bastille.

Now with COVID, this enjoyable institution may become history. Yeshivas may one day teach about this defunct practice as they do about the sacrificial altar or the red heifer. The rabbi might ask the pupils, “Anybody know what herring is?”

This might be followed up with, “tomorrow we’ll discuss the mystery of cholent.”

Oh, how we shall miss that kiddush!

Then, we have the rabbi’s sermon. Given that services must be getting shorter in order to get everyone out quickly, the rabbi will have to cut some corners. This will likely see the elimination of the rabbi’s weekly joke. No more, “Ginsberg and Levine go on a safari…” From now on, the rabbi will simply have to refer us to some website if we want to find out what happened to Ginsburg and Levine. I’m certainly curious.

Then, there is social distancing. The synagogue must only accommodate a maximum of 30 percent of its capacity, and participants must space out. This situation will likely see the end of comments such as, “is this seat taken?” or “I’m going to the washroom. Can you keep an eye on my place?” or “is that your siddur?”

Chances are, given the spacing distance and the donning of masks, most likely the closest person will not even hear you.

Does this mean synagogue services will also see a vast reduction in chatter? Maybe initially. As the need to gab becomes more pressing, congregants will find ways to communicate. We may soon see a surge in shul charades. I cannot say what they will try to mime, but it certainly won’t be about a kiddush.

And speaking of washrooms, all shuls likely have an abundance of hand sanitizers strategically located. These have become crucial items during this pandemic. It got me thinking: Since there is a blessing for handwashing, would it be appropriate for there to be a bracha for hand sanitizing?

I thought about it and parsed the Hebrew-sounding letters for the word “Purell,” doing a gematria calculation of the letters peh, resh and lamed. They add up to 310. That’s a little more than half of 613 – the number of mitzvot. Half would be 306.5. Then again, there are no letters in the Alef Bet representing fractions.

It is close though. Maybe it’s 310 for one hand and 310 for the other, with seven left over. And after all, the number seven is significant in the Talmud. Who knows?

The again, I doubt my gematria means much. I would have to leave this one to the rabbi. And even if he finds a meaning, would he have the time to discuss it? Maybe, if indeed he cuts out the joke.

Will our shuls be safe? Probably, if everybody follows the rules, for the most part. Can they be 100 percent safe? Yes. I can think of one synagogue that would be 100 percent guaranteed safe. That would be the one in the punchline of that joke in which the Jewish man on that island builds two synagogues – and one of them he would never enter.

Who ever said our relr change?


Marcel Strigberger
Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. Visit www.marcelshumour.com

EDITORIAL: Eschewing Hate and Embracing Harmony

It would seem that as we continue to hover in the eye of the pandemic, everything is magnified – from our anxieties, to our learning; from our health, to our diet; and most notably, from our avowed hatreds and dislikes.

All too often, the expressed hatred takes the form of bigotry, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and more. Prior to the pandemic, we of course saw signs of hate and extremism around us. Given our new fears and concerns, issues of racism remain no longer well-hidden or even camouflaged. Indeed like a rabid, growling dog, it is biting us square on the tuches.

Two incidents this past week in the GTA give us all reason for worry.

The proprietor of a little-known Toronto eatery called Foodbenders has chosen to express herself quite publicly about how she believes the Israeli government has abused and mistreated Palestinians, specifically in the occupied territories.

To be sure, there is much to be concerned with. Their treatment, especially by Israel’s current government, has prompted global condemnation. Surely the owner of a small restaurant in Toronto has the right to her opinions about Israel and its policies.

But in this case, those criticisms moved well beyond the political into hardcore antisemitism and anti-Zionist sentiment, mirroring those on the extremes of the political spectrum who have used the term “Zionist” to mean “Jew,” and have done so simply as an excuse to foment antisemitism. In years past, and to this very day, we have seen white supremacists and their ilk use terms like “Zio-Nazi” to mean “Jews.”

And while she has insisted that she has nothing against Jews, the owner of Foodbenders chose to post “Zionists are not welcome” at her eatery (leaving it unclear how she would discern a Zionist if one walked in).

In other social posts, she raised old anti-Jewish tropes: That Jewish groups control the media and influence the economy. She claimed that “Zionists are Nazis.”

Naturally, this led to harsh but proper reaction from mainstream Jewish organizations some of which are launching complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Toronto police hate crimes officers are also investigating.

Sadly, some of the more extreme anti-Muslim elements within and outside the Jewish community have used this hateful incident to engage in some hate of their own, scrawling anti-Muslim graffiti on the sidewalks and walls in front of the offending restaurant. Once again the Toronto police hate crimes unit is kept busy investigating these offences as well.

But it doesn’t end there. Just a few days ago in Mississauga, Ont., what started as a peaceful pro-Palestinian rally quickly degenerated into an anti-Israel harangue replete with ugly antisemitic epithets including “Jews are our dogs.”

All of this occurs while mainstream Jewish and Muslim groups have been trying to find an avenue to dialogue. Indeed, both the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the National Council of Canadian Muslims have been cooperating of late on anti-racist programs, inter-faith dialogue and more. They join groups like JSpace Canada and Salam/Shalom, which have been engaged for years in dialogue and joint programming.

This is the way towards harmony. Canada provides us with a unique platform steeped in its own attempts at reconciliation and multiculturalism. There is still much work to do on these fronts, but we all have the opportunity. Let us not allow a few with hate in their hearts to spoil our efforts to find a path forward.

On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

IDA HAENDEL: Dec. 15, 1928 – July 1, 2020. Violinist, Child Prodigy, Teacher

By DAVID EISENSTADT

Polish-born child prodigy violinist Ida (pronounced Ee-dah) Haendel, who lived in Montreal from 1952 to 1989, died in Miami, Florida on July 1. She was 96.

She was three-and-a-half when she reproduced a song on her sister’s violin. Her portrait painter father, Nathan Hendel, had aspired to become a violinist but was thwarted by his father, a rabbi, and ultimately championed his daughter’s career. The family, originally from Chelm, moved to London, England in 1936 and Ida became a British citizen.

Ida Haendel
Ida Haendel

At the age of seven, she admitted that she could not read music, yet performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto and garnered the Warsaw Conservatory Gold Medal. Two years earlier, she had won the first Huberman Prize in the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition.

Hendael’s exact age was an ongoing question in music circles, one that was never really resolved. Following a Queen’s Hall debut concert in December 1936, the Guardian reported that “to satisfy the London County council that she would be 14 for a Sunday performance of the Brahms concerto with wood in January 1937, her father came up with a certificate showing a birth date of 1923.”

An astounding prodigy whose career spanned seven decades, she was known for her intense lyricism and classical rigour. One feature of her highly characteristic sound was her perfectly judged use of the expressive slide from one note to another (the portamento). She studied with her musical mentors George Enescu in Paris and Carl Flesch in London.

In 1937, she became a frequent soloist at the famous Promenade concerts in London, playing works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, and Stravinsky, among others. The last of her 68 Prom performances was in 1994 with a concerto written by Benjamin Britten. 

Before the Second World War, she toured France, Holland and the United States with successful post-war tours in the Soviet Union and other countries. During the war, she entertained those serving in the conflict, from factory workers to frontline and returning troops.

From 1940 to 1947, she recorded a range of compositions for Decca, with some reissued in 2000 as a companion to a new recording of works by Bartok, her teacher Enescu, and Karol Szymanowski, the celebrated Polish pianist and composer. She had a passion for German and 20th century music, best exemplified by a tribute to Enescu on a Decca recording of his Violin Sonata with Vladimir Ashkenazy, which earned Haendel a Diapason d’Or in 2000.

Haendel accompanied the London Philharmonic to the first Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1973 and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to China in 1981 as the first Western violin soloist to perform after the Cultural Revolution. She even returned to Chelm in 2006 for a CD-recorded concert.

An admirer of movie stars, “she emulated many of them in trimming a few years off her age in her autobiography (Woman With Violin – 1970), but even with a birth year of 1923 rather than 1928, her early achievement was astonishing,” reported the Guardian. “Any later mention of her age saw an affronted Haendel berating enquirers with a certificate giving 1928 as the year of her birth. In much the same spirit, she embellished her family name so that it shared a spelling with that of the Saxon composer born Georg Friedrich Haendel. As she was quick to point out, they could have been related.”

She moved to Montreal in 1952 and remained a resident to 1989. She also resided in Miami from 1979 on, although London, England was her home base.

Haendel’s violin was a Stradivarius from 1699.

The one thing her career lacked, added the Guardian, “was a sustained series of new recordings in the 1960s and 70s, leaving her feeling that she never had the recognition she deserved.”

Yet, her emotive performances inspired a new generation of violinists, including David Garrett, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Maxim Vengerov – all testament to her enthralling audiences around the globe with a combination of romantic warmth and classical precision.


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

‘Zionists not Welcome’ and the Responding Deafness

By JEFFREY WILKINSON

The phrase “Zionists not welcome” appeared as a hashtag in an Instagram post on or around July 1, 2020 from the owner of Foodbenders in Toronto. Soon after, an avalanche of criticism was directed at the restaurant’s owner, Kimberly Hawkins, led by pro-Israel advocacy groups which saw the post as blatantly racist and called for a boycott of the establishment.

In the past couple of days, Facebook and Instagram have been filled with responses (and responses to the responses) producing little, if any meaningful discourse, but instead, resorting to the usual tribal screaming and insults directed at those with opposing views, on both sides of the argument.

There is no simple right or wrong, as much as we would like to feel that we are completely on the right side, whatever that side is. There was, however, a great deal of propaganda peddled in the responses to the post.

If we take Hawkins literally – that she is banning Zionists from her store, and, by affiliation, banning most Jews – of course, this is highly offensive and totally inappropriate in a civil society. In a response in blogTO, Hawkins said that she, of course, welcomes Zionists and Jews; that she was making a political statement about Palestinian rights and would gladly have a conversation about this with anyone who is interested.

Many who were convinced that the post was, plain and simple, a clear example of antisemitism, immediately dismissed her claim.

There are some common ideas which inflame more than help, pushed by many in the outcry over the owner’s post. First, Zionists and Jews are synonymous, so banning Zionists is equivalent to the days of “No Dogs or Jews.”

Second, as one post stated, “Zionism is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel – the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. That’s it. It’s not support for a specific Israeli government or any actions of that government.”

Third, as the vast majority of Canadian Jews support Israel, the term “Zionist” equals “Jews.” In other words, if you are anti-Zionist, you are anti the vast majority of Canadian Jews and therefore antisemitic. This conflation has been a focal point of pro-Israel advocacy groups, particularly in light of the general acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism by many Canadian governmental and non-governmental organizations, which connects certain types of criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Each of these points is meant to reduce or silence criticism of Israel, and devalue the concerns of Palestinians and their supporters. A measure of how effective this has been is seen in how assuredly many people responding to Hawkins’ post took “Zionists are not welcome” to mean barring Jews, rather than seeing it as a political statement resisting the consequences of Zionism to Palestinians. In fact, she has an embossed decal on her store window stating “I Love Gaza,” not “I Hate Jews.”

In the many responses back and forth, blanket statements about Zionism are hurled at the other. While one post states; “Zionism is a colonial enterprise” and another fires back; “Zionism is an anti-colonial enterprise, resisting the Arab colonialists, creating freedom for an oppressed people.”

My concern here is to highlight the deafness that is rampant in the Israel-Palestine discourse these responses epitomize. Is there an irrefutable truth in the statements being tossed back and forth? Is anyone interested if there was?

Imagine a response from a Jew that went something like this:

Dear Ms Hawkins:

I am a Jew and I felt quite hurt by your Instagram post, particularly the hashtag “Zionists not welcome.” What do you mean by Zionists? Do you mean all people who have an affinity for Israel? Do you distinguish people who have no interest in what is happening to Palestinians from those, like me, who value Israel but have deep concerns over what Israel has become, particularly its harmful effects on Palestinians? Would you please clarify what you meant and be clearer in the future so that we can all learn and listen to each other with an ear towards healing rather than further division?

Sincerely, a concerned fellow Canadian.

If one were to respond in this manner, it might be possible to learn rather than demonize. We need to be more wary of those who are deepening the divide in the discourse about Israel-Palestine, and the conflict by stoking past traumas and forwarding only a zero-sum, us vs. them paradigm. By responding to a hurtful post with such force, the hurt is only magnified. We can be hurt and still listen. Another can offend us without us dismissing them. We can and must do better.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.

Anti-Semitism Becomes Political Fodder in Alberta’s Legislature

June 29, 2020 – By JEREMY APPEL
(Courtesy Alberta Jewish News)

The Jewish Federations of Edmonton and Calgary say they expressed concerns privately with the provincial government after an appointee to a judicial vetting committee was revealed to have promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories online.

Cold Lake, Alta., lawyer Leighton Grey abruptly resigned from the Provincial Court Nominating Committee (PCNC) on June 19 after CBC Edmonton uncovered social media and blog posts that compared a future COVID vaccine to Auschwitz tattoos and called Black Lives Matter a “leftist lie” promoted by Jewish billionaire George Soros. Another post accused Soros of financially manipulating the European Court of Human Rights.

Cold Lake, Alberta lawyer, Leighton Grey
Cold Lake, Alberta lawyer, Leighton Grey

The PCNC was established by the previous government with the goal of enhancing diversity in the selection of provincial court judges. Its role is to vet and select judges who have already been screened by the Judicial Committee.

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer purged the committee of its NDP appointees on April 29, replacing them with more conservative-oriented ones through an informal, closed process.

In response to inquiries from the Alberta Jewish News, the Edmonton Jewish Federation said it sent a letter to the government expressing its concerns, but declined to make its contents public.

“We are dealing with this privately as we do with most advocacy issues where we have a partner who we trust and have a good relationship with,” federation president Steven Shafir said, citing Premier Jason Kenney’s “long-standing friendship with the Jewish community and Israel.”

In a statement announcing Grey’s departure, Schweitzer called Grey a “successful Indigenous lawyer with an exemplary record of service.”

“I also do not make judgments on Mr. Grey’s ability to carry out his professional duties in practising law,” the minister said.

He also clarified that the resignation was Grey’s own decision, made to avoid serving as a distraction from the committee’s work.

“Work on the committee is far from a full-time job, and members are not required to surrender their right to personal views or commentary,” wrote Schweitzer.

Before Grey’s resignation, NDP MLA Irfan Sabir brought the House’s attention to another of his posts that suggested too many female judges were being appointed.

“Eight of the past 10 superior court justices appointed in Alberta were women. Today it was announced that five of seven judges appointed to our Provincial Court are women. If Lady Justice is truly blind, then why does she see gender?” wrote Grey.


Schweitzer responded by calling Sabir’s line of questioning “absolutely disgusting,” before listing off previous PCNC appointees who were NDP donors.

After Grey’s resignation, NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley asked the premier to explicitly condemn Grey’s remarks in the legislature.

Schweitzer responded by saying that Grey’s resignation was sufficient.

“Mr. Speaker, this individual resigned over a post that they made online. I’ve accepted that person’s resignation. I think that speaks for itself,” the minister said.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley issued a news release to highlight Kenney and Schweitzer’s refusal to outright condemn Grey’s remarks.

“It sends a dangerous signal to hateful extremists when the Premier of Alberta is silent when these opinions are being promoted by his own appointees,” said Notley.

“It should be extremely concerning to any supporter of human rights in Alberta that neither the Premier nor the Justice Minister would apologize for this appointment, or commit to ensuring that this will not happen again,” Notley said. “Jason Kenney must publicly condemn Leighton Grey’s comments, and apologize for his Justice Minister’s statement that prejudice has a place within a ‘diversity of views.’”

The next day in the legislature, Kenney said the Opposition “attacked an indigenous lawyer for his appointment.”

“That person made offensive comments. He’s no longer on the board.”


Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with Alberta Jewish News.

Canadians Opposed to Annexation, Poll Suggests

By RON CSILLAG

A new survey suggests that three out of four Canadians want their government to oppose Israel’s proposed annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

Apart from suggesting that 74 percent of Canadians want Ottawa to express opposition to Israel’s annexation proposal “in some form,” the survey also found that 42 percent want Canada to impose economic and/or diplomatic sanctions against Israel should the annexation plan proceed.

“There is very little support for Israeli annexation among the Canadian public,” the survey noted, adding that the poll “confirms” that Canada’s foreign policy “is out of touch with the preferences of Canadians.”

EKOS Research Associates conducted the national online survey of 1,009 Canadians from June 5 to 10 on behalf of three groups that oppose the annexation and support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, and the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine-Israel.

The poll found that only 11 percent of respondents said Canada should support Israel’s annexation plans, and 15 percent said Canada should do nothing.

Among Liberal Party supporters, 42 percent favour sanctions, while 45 percent thought Canada should express opposition but take no further action. Only five percent of Liberals want Canada to support Israel’s plan, and eight percent would prefer Canada do nothing.

Conservatives were found to be most supportive of Israel’s annexation plan. Half of Conservative supporters think that Canada should either support the plan (27 percent) or do nothing (25 percent). Another 32 percent of Conservatives said Canada should express opposition, and 16 percent said Canada should impose sanctions.

Among Canadians aged 18 to 35, an “overwhelming majority” want Canada to oppose Israel’s plans, the poll suggested: 59 percent of respondents in that age group said Canada should impose sanctions on Israel, and 24 percent said Canada should express opposition but take no other action.

Imposing sanctions on Israel was the “clear preference” for a majority of those who support the NDP (68 percent); Green Party (59 percent), and Bloc Quebecois (54 percent).

Supporting sanctions on Israel was most popular with Canadians who have higher levels of education, but Canadians of all education levels favoured sanctions over the other options, the survey found.

The poll results “demonstrate that the Trudeau government would have strong majority support if it opposed the annexations, and considerable public support to go further and impose sanctions on Israel. In fact, from a political standpoint, it would be risky for the Trudeau government to stay quiet in the face of this violation of international law planned by Israel.”

Listed as investigators and authors of the survey are Michael Bueckert, Thomas Woodley, and Grafton Ross of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East; Sheryl Nestel and Stanislav Birko of Independent Jewish Voices Canada; and Ken McEvoy of United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine-Israel.

As with at least one other past survey conducted by pro-BDS groups, this latest one was dismissed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs as weighted to arrive at certain conclusions.

“Predictably,” questions were “intentionally biased to skew the answer,” Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of CIJA, told the CJR.

By “prejudicially” characterizing the lands in question as “Palestinian,” and stating that Israel plans to “formally incorporate” them, the poll’s questions “telegraph to the respondent that the territory is incontrovertibly Palestinian [and is] being stolen by Israel, and [is] not disputed.”

In doing so, “the poll seeks to exploit a generic tendency on the part of Canadians to express support for the perceived underdog,” Fogel noted.

Notwithstanding the “serious deficiencies” in the survey questions and the “dubious” motivations of the report’s sponsors, “a majority” of Canadians have indicated their opposition to any changes to Canada-Israel relations, Fogel said.

An extensive Environics survey conducted last year found a plurality of respondents endorsed Canada’s level of support for Israel, but a “significant” minority said it was not supportive enough.

However, that was before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to unilaterally annex about 30 percent of the West Bank by July 1.

The latest poll comes as more than 100 prominent Canadians – former diplomats and cabinet ministers, as well as rabbis, academics, authors, and human rights advocates – signed letters asking the government to forcefully oppose Israel’s proposed annexation.


Ron Csillag
Ron Csillag

Ron Csillag is editor of the Canadian Jewish Record

Letters to the Editor: Friday June 26, 2020

Regarding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attempt to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council:

I honestly believe that Trudeau communicates well with the world. I commend him for his strong and effective leadership in this time of COVID crisis.

But I wonder if all the tax dollars and time spent to win a UN Security Council seat was really worth it.

As dictators and murderers in Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, and Syria literally get away with murdering their own people, I ask myself, “why?” Why not use our tax dollars and time to stand up to these bully countries, and condemn those countries that vilify Israel?

In Israel, one can be gay and live freely. Not in Iran and the others. Let’s stand up to Iran on behalf of our fellow 57 Canadians who were killed when Iran shot down flight 752 in January.

Canada knows the truth: That Mahmoud Abbas heads the Palestinians’ “pay for slay” policy, in which he rewards terrorists’ families with salaries. Keep Abbas accountable!

I ask Trudeau respectfully: Let’s invest our tax dollars and time in the most constructive way.

Rabbi Yirmi Cohen 
Toronto

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

By AKILAH ALLEN-SILVERSTEIN

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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

Kenneth S. Stern, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate
New Jewish Press, 2020
296 pages

Reviewed by MIRA SUCHAROV

While international conflicts have been known to exhibit ripple effects far from their borders, nowhere is the microcosm of ideological tensions over Israel/Palestine more apparent these days than on university and college campuses.

In a smart, personal and engaging book, Kenneth S. Stern, director of Bard College’s Bard Center for the Study of Hate, takes us on a tour of today’s American campus Israel/Palestine debates in the context of a full-throated argument for free speech.

While Stern focuses on American college campuses, Canadians might read this through slightly different eyes, given that our respective laws around speech are not identical in their scope. Unlike the U.S. with its First Amendment provisions (which permits all speech except for direct incitement to violence – so-called “fighting words”), Canada does have hate-speech provisions, although hate speech cases are notoriously hard to prosecute in this country.

Kenneth Stern
Kenneth Stern

The book takes the reader through the polarized debate around antisemitism, anti-Zionism and different views of academic freedom, stemming from the controversial 2001 Durban conference on racism and the rise of the academic boycott movement against Israel. 

Stern describes how he founded an academic group called Alliance for Academic Freedom, devoted to opposing the academic boycott of Israel (a group in which I was involved from the ground up before I eventually resigned, my views having changed slightly; full disclosure, since he mentions me in the text).

In the contemporary culture wars, Stern’s is an argument against such current phenomena as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” And perhaps surprising to some, given that he proclaims himself a Zionist in the book, Stern is concerned by a current chill on campus speech brought about by the incorporation of anti-Zionism into the contemporary antisemitism definition much used today.

It may also read as ironic, given that Stern was instrumental in drafting the definition that is now much debated, and which has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (and last year by Canada). But this is where the strength of the book lies: It is a principled discussion of free speech, whether or not one agrees with his threshold.

Stern takes us deftly through the debates around Donald Trump’s “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019”, which uses the IHRA definition to define what is acceptable to say on campus. Stern opposes using this definition to assess campus speech. “Decrying anti-Zionism at the UN or in bilateral relations or recognizing it for data collection is one thing,” he writes; “declaring anti-Zionism as antisemitic for campus application can only chill free speech.”

Where I think the book’s argument falls short is around much of what is known as the “deplatforming” debate: The robust opposition to having certain speakers come to campus. Stern sees speaker freedom as akin to the principle of free speech. But I would argue that Stern’s argument should provide more scaffolding about who deserves an invitation to a given campus, not only on one’s right to constitutionally protected speech. Campuses are distinct entities: a campus invitation comes with resources: advertisements, space, security, and so on. And such invitations also come with a certain amount of conferred prestige: a speaker invited to a university can put the event on their CV; not so if one simply stands on a soapbox in a public park and opines.

Stern’s view is that as long as campus officials or student groups follow proper procedures in inviting a speaker, any idea should be fair game for airing. His is an argument that relies on the marketplace of ideas to weed out bad ideas and elevate good ones.

But I might challenge the idea that campuses should be viewed as akin to unregulated markets. I would suggest that they should apply specific intellectual standards: They are institutions of learning, not simply open-air streets where ordinary speech laws should apply.

Others will wonder whether Stern’s view opposing safe spaces and trigger warnings lacks pedagogical compassion. And indeed, there is a bit of an inherent built-in tension in parts of his book, as when he recounts an evening around a dinner table with a group of students who noted that they felt so much more comfortable talking with him about the sensitive issues around Israel/Palestine than they do on campus, where they often meet vocal and vociferous opposition.

Readers might wonder whether the students’ appreciation stemmed from Stern actually having, over the course of that evening, provided a “safe space” for the exchange, however defined.

These quibbles suggest a book worth reading; a narrative worthy of wrestling and conversation.


Mira Sucharov

Mira Sucharov is professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her most recent books are Public Influence: A Guide to Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement (author) and Social Justice and Israel/Palestine: Foundational and Contemporary Debates (co-editor)