The mission that’s motivating Alexandra Lulka Rotman to seek re-election as a Toronto public school trustee—even after she felt exasperated by antisemitism in 2021

Alexandra Lulka Rotman and John Tory. (Facebook)

Alexandra Lulka Rotman has been keeping a low profile for the past nine months, following the attention she received for a public fight over antisemitism at Canada’s largest public school board. 

But now she’s back to knocking on doors, with the hopes of continuing as a Toronto public school trustee, in the riding of York Centre. 

It’s a part-time elected position which the Toronto Montessori Jewish Day School teacher has held since winning a 2016 byelection to replace Howard Kaplan, who died of an autoimmune disorder. 

She was then re-elected in 2018—which means winning the municipal vote on Oct. 24, 2022, would bring four more years in this position.

“My voice needs to stay at the table right now and I’m not ready to walk away,” the 32-year-old Lulka Rotman told The CJN Daily, in her first interview since the December ordeal.

It was only last fall that she narrowly avoided official censure from her colleagues on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), in the kind of story that encapsulates the current challenges with how issues surrounding Israel—and Jewish people in general—are dealt with.

During the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, she used social media to sound the alarm over resource material distributed to staff by a pro-Palestinian employee of the school board.

Some of the pages contained links to terrorist groups promoting suicide bombings against Israelis—among other clearly problematic passages.

But instead of thanking her for flagging the material, which had not been vetted prior to distribution, the TDSB’s equity office hired an outside consultant to investigate whether Lulka Rotman violated the code of conduct.

Their final report agreed the material was antisemitic. But it also declared the Jewish trustee to be racist and Islamophobic, because she didn’t praise the acceptable parts of the resource package.

“I remember receiving the materials, a 50-page document with all of these links,” she said during an interview at home, in Toronto’s traditionally Jewish neighbourhood of Bathurst Manor. “And I sat on that couch and I read through them and I cried, because the concept that these really horrible things could be used as teaching resources in the classroom, it was heartbreaking.”

Lulka Rotman was subsequently not permitted to vote at the December 2021 board meeting, where her censure was defeated by 10 trustees overriding the seven who wanted it upheld. She was limited to giving a brief statement via Zoom, and then stayed publicly silent about what the process was like, and what it cost her and the rest of her family. 

‘My work isn’t finished’

After the toxic events of this past school year, Lulka Rotman wasn’t sure she wanted to run for another term.

But after a quiet summer growing cherry tomatoes and spending time with her toddler daughter, and enjoying a second pregnancy—the baby is due in November—Lulka Rotman decided she couldn’t walk away from the battle to make Toronto’s public schools a safer and more welcoming place for Jewish families, and Jewish teachers.

“I’ve realized that my work isn’t finished,” she said. “There’s too much work that still needs to be done at the board to make sure that we are properly integrating antisemitism into our anti-racism work and that our community needs to have a strong voice at the table for that to happen.”

And while she’d already signed up to run in early August, more motivation arrived with the discovery that one of eight challengers on the Ward 5 ballot is someone with a history and reputation of making the kind of remarks she’s talking about.

Nick Balaskas was fired from his lab technician job at York University in 2016 for posting antisemitic and anti-Israel comments on his Facebook page, including some supporting Holocaust denial. He most recently ran in the Ontario provincial election for the Ontario Party. 

On a more personal level, Lulka Rotman admits that her time in the spotlight was difficult to live through. She never expected the kind of hatred and vitriol that she received for speaking out.

Going to therapy also helped when she was under a gag order not to publicly discuss the case. The equity investigator’s final report being made public gave her more freedom to talk.

And, given the number of international viewers for the TDSB meeting about the censure in December, there’s plenty of interest in hearing what she has to say. 

‘Proud Israel advocate’

Lulka Rotman’s family has several connections to Jewish communal life: the Queen’s University graduate went through the CJPAC program that trains young people to be active in politics. Her own Twitter account notes that she’s a “proud Israel advocate.”

Meanwhile, her husband, Alexander Rotman, worked in federal and provincial politics prior to his current role of countering antisemitism and hate at the UJA of Greater Toronto. And her uncle, Mauricio Lulka, is executive director of the Jewish community in Mexico. 

The ward in which she’s running also has a large Jewish population. York Centre used to be home to many Holocaust survivors. It houses the campus of TanenbaumCHAT—the Jewish high school from which Lulka Rotman graduated in 2008—and several synagogues. 

Which is why she’s decided to focus her campaign on making the city’s public schools safe for Jewish students and staff, even as the riding is becoming more diverse overall. 

“This was an incident that was targeted against the Jewish community. But it doesn’t only affect the Jewish community. I think it affects everyone, because all minorities need to feel safe, and they come for us first, but it doesn’t stop there.”

If she’s re-elected, Lulka Rotman intends to push the board to live up to its commitments regarding Judaism and antisemitism. The TDSB’s director of education pledged in December to order new teaching modules on Judaism and Jewish culture, which would then be delivered as professional development courses.

But she feels there’s still much to be done. 

Hitler salutes and Holocaust denial

One problem is how to respond best to the growing incidents of anti-Jewish graffiti, Hitler salutes and Holocaust denial showing up in the classrooms.

Such a case occurred in February 2022 at the Charles H. Best Junior Middle School, which is in her ward. The situation was compounded by confusion when the board went public without considering the wishes of the student’s family.

While the TDSB’s current response is to dispatch Holocaust educator Michelle Glied-Goldstein to conduct human rights training, Lulka Rotman believes that may not be the only solution to improving a climate of anxiety. Her hope is that discussion of the Shoah be accompanied with lessons about the other layers of Jewish identity and culture. 

She praises the impact of recent programs like student walking tours of Kensington Market, through a partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives. There was also a Holocaust book and film studied in grades 4 though 8. 

And, for next spring, the TDSB’s Jewish Heritage Committee is planning a special program to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the Christie Pits Riot.

High-profile endorsements

Due to her advanced pregnancy, and the demands of juggling both her duties as a trustee and her day job, Lulka Rotman knows this new campaign for re-election will be somewhat scaled back compared to last time around.

Melissa Lantsman with Alexandra Lulka Rotman.

But she’s also scored endorsements from Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, former finance minister Joe Oliver, Liberal MPs Ya’ara Saks and Anthony Housefather, and former foreign affairs minister John Baird. (Her husband worked with them all on Parliament Hill.) Plus, she did some door-knocking alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory and Councillor James Pasternak.

She also takes comfort in knowing that some new faces will be elected to the 22 seats around the board of trustees come October. So, if she wins, she may not have to work with the trustees who voted to censure her.

And while some Jewish groups trumpeted Lulka Rotman’s 10-7 vote as a resounding victory, she didn’t see it in the same way. And still doesn’t.

“This wasn’t really about what happened to me at the end of the day. This was about the fact that the systemic antisemitism within the higher levels of the board—I’m not talking about what happens in the classrooms—I’m talking about centrally, within our human rights office, within our equity department, the systemic antisemitism is so entrenched that, whether or not I was censured, it doesn’t change that.”

The next challenge is how to fight against the equity, diversity and inclusion cohorts that view Jews and Zionists as white supremacists and colonial oppressors, rather than a minority that also faces racism. 

“We need to figure out how to break that pattern—because, in my six years at the board, I personally have experienced more antisemitism than I have before. 

“That’s the systemic antisemitism that really scares me.”