Liberal MP Affirms Friendship with Jewish Community

Nov. 12, 2020 

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—One year after he was elected, Montreal-area Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi welcomed the opportunity to finally put to rest Conservative allegations that he is antisemitic and a proponent of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Sameer Zuberi
Photo credit: Bernard Thibodeau

“That’s completely false and wrong; it’s inconsistent with who I am and my record,” Zuberi told a videoconference hosted by Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on Nov. 3. “…The Conservative attack is a red herring. If it were actually true, I would not be doing what I am doing now.”

On the eve of the contested Liberal nomination meeting in the Pierrefonds-Dollard riding in September 2019, the Conservative Party issued a press release describing Zuberi as having an “antisemitic past” and “promoted conspiracy theories” about 9/11.

The release also denounced Zuberi, who is Muslim, as a “radical activist” when he was a student leader at Concordia University in the early 2000s.

Zuberi, 41, who won the nomination over five other contenders, denied the allegations at the time, but went further in explaining why they were inaccurate and hurtful in response to a question during the virtual Temple event.

First, he emphasized that he comes from a mixed background. His father emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s and his mother is a third-generation Canadian from Brockville, Ont.

An aunt converted to Judaism, and she, his uncle and their children – Zuberi’s cousins – observe kashruth and Shabbat. “I participated in that from a young age. My parents always reminded me that we have Christians and Jews in our family. Since the cradle, that has always been my world view and why I have worked so hard to create understanding among communities,” he said.

Zuberi, who was active in the Canadian Muslim Forum and worked as the diversity and engagement officer in McGill University’s faculty of medicine before running in the October 2019 federal election, said he has been devoted to bridge-building throughout his life.

Well before he considered entering politics, Zuberi said he attended a Shalom Hartman Institute program in Jerusalem to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience. There, he “learned from rabbis, thought leaders and civil society in an unvarnished way.”

He said he “cares deeply for the Jewish community and respects the Jews of Canada and the world.”

Addressing the specific Conservative charges, which were never retracted, Zuberi said to characterize him as a “9/11 truther could not be further from the truth. I have constantly denounced terrorism and Osama bin Laden…I am on the record dozens of times.”

The Conservatives reproduced an exchange on Zuberi’s Facebook page from May 3, 2011, just after bin Laden was assassinated, to back up their allegation. Zuberi responded to a comment posted that whether bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 was still “a matter of public debate,” but cautioned the commenter against subscribing to theories that confirmed their views.

Zuberi points out that on that day, he had a letter published in the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette in which he wrote that “the death of Osama bin Laden is a welcome event.” The thrust of the letter was that, 10 years after 9/11, “it was time to turn a new page and move on to something else,” he explained.

As for the accusation that as a Concordia Student Union vice-president, he supported the suspension of the Jewish student club Hillel in late 2002 because it was accused of disseminating Israel Defense Forces recruitment materials, Zuberi said that, “at that time, I am on the record that Hillel should not be suspended. I dug up that statement and shared it publicly.”

The Temple’s Rabbi Lisa Grushcow’s association with Zuberi goes back to before he entered federal politics. She said they worked together on interfaith and intercultural projects, and collaborated during the fight against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. He has taken part in the Temple’s Muslim Awareness Week and other programming, she said.

“Sameer has consistently been a friend of our community,” she said.

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.”

Genealogy Buff Cited for Indexing Montreal Jewish Graves

Aug 20, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Those given to black humour may joke that Gary Perlman has spent more time in cemeteries than some of their denizens.

But the retired software developer is deadly serious in his quest to photograph as many gravestones in Montreal-area Jewish burial grounds as he possibly can, and to research each person who lies beneath.

Over the past five years, Perlman has photographed more than 40,000 stones, some dating back to the early 19th century, finding ingenious ways to make legible often worn or damaged inscriptions, or to illuminate those in obscurity.

Gary Perlman
Gary Perlman

He has submitted these high-quality images, along with records about the deceased he has organized, had translated from Hebrew, and frequently added to or corrected – a total of over 100,000 items – to JOWBR, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry.

JOWBR catalogues data on Jewish cemeteries around the world and makes it available in searchable format to genealogists and other researchers everywhere, free of charge.

Perlman, who has done all this without remuneration, was already a hero to his fellow members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal (JGS-M). Now, he’s being recognized around the globe. This month, the modest Perlman received the 2020 Volunteer of the Year award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), an umbrella organization of over 50 groups. Due to the pandemic, its 40th annual conference was held virtually.

“It’s meaningful that people appreciate what I am doing,” said Perlman, who carries on his sleuthing and hopes the honour will convince reluctant Montreal Jewish cemeteries to give him permission to shoot there as well and add to JOWBR’s Montreal holdings.

A glaring omission is two of the city’s oldest and largest synagogues: Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Perlman has worked in Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation’s cemetery, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, founded more than 250 years ago.

He has completed documentation of two other historic sites: the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, Montreal’s largest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1905, and its affiliated Back River Memorial Gardens, dating to the late 1800s. The latter, located in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough far from today’s Jewish population, was especially challenging due to its having been left to deteriorate for a long time before a restoration.

Many of its nearly 7,000 stones were crumbling but Perlman managed to capture high-resolution pictures of all of them. Through countless hours of trial and error, he has discovered just the right angle or time of day to coax out eroded epitaphs that were thought to have been lost forever.

He has done all the city’s Holocaust memorials (1,900-plus names) and war casualty monuments (some 600 names), including from the Jewish section of the National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, which are posted on JewishGen’s memorial plaque page.

Balancing respect for privacy with the imperative to preserve and share the unique and rich source of Jewish history the burial data represent is a guiding principle for Perlman.

JOWBR, which logs 3.7 million photos and records from 8,666 cemeteries in 130 countries, considers the work Perlman does a mitzvah.

This treasure trove, however, is of little use and can be downright misleading when there are errors, and Perlman found an astonishing number of those even in such basic information as names and dates on both the stones and in the cemeteries’ archives.

A 63-year-old Montreal native, Perlman spent his 30-year career in the United States after receiving a PhD at the University of California at San Diego. He is a late-blooming amateur genealogist, not having done much snooping into his own ancestors until he attended one of the JGS-M’s free workshops for beginners.

He found in its enthusiastic president, Stanley Diamond – also co-founder and executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, a pioneering digitizer and democratizer of genealogical data – a kindred spirit who recognized modern technology’s power to unlock the past.

Perlman became JGS-M’s webmaster and set about to update the society’s existing cemetery indexing project, which since 2007, had collected a few thousand photos, many of which weren’t good enough for optimal reproduction online.

Perlman does not find spending so much time among the dead morbid. “Not at all!” he replied when asked if it has made him reflect on his own mortality. But on his early expeditions, he did find heartbreaking the tragic tales some stones told, such as the mother and her two children killed in a plane crash who rest together, or the mass unmarked grave of children who died in epidemics.

He couldn’t fail to notice the increased number of burials since the COVID pandemic, which has touched him personally. Another of his volunteer endeavours has been helping elderly residents of the Maimonides Geriatric Centre put together their family trees. He lost three of his “clients” to COVID.

Intriguing and sometimes humorous epitaphs have lightened his days in the field. He has numerous examples, such as the double monument of a couple. On her side it reads: “Saul would rather be golfing.”

Then there was “Don’t forget the Bubba” or “Resting in peace, no conversation please” that made him chuckle.

The IAJGS also cited Perlman for directly linking JOWBR search results to the JGS-M website (jgs-montreal.org) where supplemental information, like parents’ names (including the Hebrew ones) can be found, as well as the location and condition of the grave. He is lauded for creating the JewishGen Dashboard, where users can search some 50 databases from a single web page on the JGS-M site.

Perlman was nominated for Volunteer of the Year by Diamond, and “strongly endorsed” by JOWBR coordinator Nolan Altman who praised Perlman’s “unending attention to detail. His submissions to JOWBR are always clear, complete and precise…When Gary submits data/photos I know it will be correct.”

Wrote Diamond to the IAJGS, “I treasure volunteers who, not only step forward when asked, but who carry out their task with passion and devotion…Gary is most certainly one of the best in this regard.”