Obituary: Lawyer John Syrtash helped ease the way of Jewish divorce

John Syrtash

John Syrtash, whose legal career spanned four decades and who played a major role in revamping Canadian laws to help Jewish women navigate the shoals of religious divorce, died in Toronto on Aug. 1 of a heart attack. He was 68.

A specialist in family law and civil litigation, Syrtash laboured for years to effect amendments to Canada’s Divorce Act and Ontario’s Family Law Act to make it easier for Jewish women to obtain a get—a religious divorce decree.

The work began in 1985, when he met with rabbis and lawyers to lobby for changes to Ontario’s family law system. That, in turn, set the standards for alterations to federal divorce laws five years later, recalled Norma Joseph of Montreal, an expert in the get and a fellow pioneer in how Canadian law was changed to recognize and accommodate it.

“We all understood that we were trying to remove barriers for women’s religious remarriage, and that the issue was one of competing values,” Joseph told The CJN. Syrtash “stood side by side with us in the fight for women’s rights in the Jewish world and in the general human rights environment.”

Syrtash joined the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get to lobby Ottawa for changes. While marriage was governed by provincial law, rules for divorce were under federal jurisdiction.

The advocates ran up against “multiple issues of freedom of religion, the government’s obligation to preserve and protect, the unified legal system of Canada, and the unique position of multiculturalism in Canada,” Joseph recalled.

“John knew these challenges from the legal and political perspectives, and he stood shoulder to shoulder with us.”

Syrtash, Joseph, and the late Rabbi Reuven Bulka testified before parliamentary hearings in Ottawa. All political parties agreed with their recommendations. The amendments to the Divorce Act, which prevented recalcitrant Jewish (and Muslim) husbands from using a religious divorce as a bargaining chip in civil proceedings, passed unanimously in 1990.

“John was a key resource throughout the process, always a welcome colleague,” Joseph said.

Syrtash’s success led to an invitation to Israel in 2005 to address members of rabbinical courts, the prime minister’s office and justice ministry officials to present the Canadian model on the get. “Canada to the rescue of Israel’s agunot,” proclaimed an optimistic headline in the Jerusalem Post, using the word for women who cannot remarry Jewishly without a get and would remain agunot (“chained”).

Syrtash explained that before the Canadian law was amended, either spouse could use the get as leverage to extort money, benefits or child visitation rights from the other side, as was often the case in Israel, and still is.

He told the Israeli officials that the Canadian changes worked because most rabbis accepted them as procedural rather than punitive.

Syrtash was also asked by the Canadian government to provide recommendations on amendments to Canada’s spousal and child support laws.

Syrtash was recalled as a “consummate gentleman and intellectual and an absolutely lovely and kind person to work with” by his firm, Garfin Zeidenberg LLP of Toronto, where he conducted a family law mediation and arbitration practice.

“He cared passionately about his clients and their children caught in the throes of litigation,” the firm noted.

John Tibor Syrtash was born on June 4, 1953 in Budapest to Imre and Judith Syrtash. Like many Jewish families, the clan fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and decamped to Holland, then came to Canada the following year.

Syrtash studied English at the University of Toronto and law at Queen’s University. He transferred to UofT’s law school after his mother died, and was called to the bar in 1981.

In the mid-1980s, Syrtash was a founding member of Beth Avraham Joseph of Toronto synagogue in Thornhill.

He authored Religion and Culture in Family Law in 1992 and a humorous collection of short stories about Toronto-area Jewry, A Calendar of Northern Fables, in 2016. For decades, he was a well-read columnist on family law issues for The CJN and The Lawyers Weekly, and was widely quoted in media on family law issues.

“He only saw good in people. He never complained, never saw fault, never had a bad word for anyone,” Orly Katz, his partner of 13 years, told The CJN. “He hated confrontation, even though he practiced family law. He sought unity. He was a unifying force.”

Indeed, in the beginnings of COVID in spring of 2020, Syrtash had advice for quarantined couples experiencing cabin fever. Consider, he counseled, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who taught that if you have a negative thought, like resentment or annoyance, then force yourself to think positively. Don’t lash out. Keep cool.

“When your partner grabs the remote for the sixth straight time, make a joke of it,” he wrote for the Canadian Jewish Record. “Then lie, if necessary. Explain how much you enjoy that Serbian cooking show rather than the reruns of your favourite Raptors games.”

In other words, “stop worrying about the little things and soon you will realize that there are no big things.”

Syrtash is survived by his partner, Orly Katz; a brother, Peter; children Josh, Elana, and Jeremy, and five grandchildren.

John Syrtash’s original column header from The Canadian Jewish News