Legitimacy questions continue to plague CIJA

Rabbi Philip Scheim, left, and Shimon Fogel

TORONTO —  As 2011 draws to a close, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) continues to face questions about its composition and legitimacy, and about why it mothballed Canadian Jewish Congress.


From 2004 until this year, CIJA had been known as the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy and was the umbrella organization that oversaw most of the national Jewish communal organizations in Canada.

Following a re-launch earlier this year, CIJA consolidated and took over as the primary advocate for community and Israel-related issues by assuming the roles previously held by Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC), the University Outreach Committee and the Quebec-Israel Committee, among others.

Since then, a re-branded CIJA has been working to implement a mandate that it says will engage people at the grassroots level, as well as in already established institutions, for the betterment of the Jewish community.

But supporters of the 90-year-old CJC are still asking questions about CIJA’s accountability and representativeness.

Rabbi Philip Scheim, spiritual leader of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue and a member of The CJN’s Toronto advisory board, said he’s particularly concerned about the issue.

“It is not clear to me who CIJA represents. Unlike Congress, whose officers were elected by a body representing organizations and communities across Canada, CIJA seems to be a self-appointed body, beholden only to a very small group of extremely influential backers. This transformation is a major defeat for democracy in the Canadian Jewish community,” Rabbi Scheim said.

In early August, CIJA nominated its inaugural board of directors. At the time it described this process as “anomalous” to its first operating year, but CIJA officials now say that the practice will continue.

The CIJA board nominating committee – led by CIJA chair Steven Cummings and founding member Larry Tanenbaum – chose the first 25 board members based on “geography, gender balance, age, partisan affiliation, knowledge of the Jewish community, experience within or engagement with the political sector and the like.”

Going forward, CIJA will drop its board size to a maximum of 21 people, but retain its methodology for the selection process, as outlined in the organization’s bylaws, CEO Shimon Fogel told The CJN.

“In terms of appointments, the process is the same in both circumstances. A nominations committee appointed by the [board] members meets and recommends a slate to the membership for approval. There is no set formula for board appointments. Rather, all are ad personam appointments.”

The original 25 board members are Steven Cummings, immediate past-chair; David Koschitzky, chair designate; Stanley Plotnick, a founding member of CIJA; Toronto businessman Morris Perlis; Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff; Jewish Federations of North America vice-chair Marylin Blumer; Austin Beutel, chair of Astral Media’s corporate governance committee; Paul Goldman, a Vancouver lawyer; Liberal candidate for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour Mike Savage; former Conservative MP Stockwell Day; Father Raymond de Souza of Kingston; Ottawa lawyer Tom d’Aquino.

Jonathan Freedman, an Ottawa realtor and past chairman of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa; Staci Silverman, president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students (CJFS); Nancy Rosenfeld, president of the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation and the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation; Judy Kremer, a Montreal lawyer and former Congress board member; Moshe Ronen, former CIC board chair and former president of Congress; David Engel, immediate past president of UIA Federations Canada (UIAFC); Toronto lawyer and former Congress president Ed Morgan; Marty Chernin, president of Temple Sons of Israel in Sydney, N.S.; Winnipeg lawyer David Kroft; Calgary businesswoman Carol Ryder; Heather Fenyes, president of Congregation Agudas Israel Synagogue in Saskatoon, and Saskatchewan’s Lorne Nystrom, a former NDP MP.

CIJA’s bylaws say that the board must include at least three members who are not from Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, as well as the president of the CJFS, at least one member of the executive committee of UIAFC, and “such other individuals as are required to fill the number of director positions.”

Fogel said he understands there is still some yearning for Congress, but based on research his organization conducted in the run-up to its re-launch, the time was ripe for a rebranding and a new direction for communal advocacy in Canada.

“Congress is a very recognizable brand, especially with the older demographic within the Jewish community,” Fogel wrote in an e-mail. “However, understanding of Congress and its legacy drops off very dramatically with the under-45 demographic within our community, who cannot relate to the name [or] the legacy (e.g. most don’t even remember the USSR or Soviet Jewry). Moreover, there were perceptions of [Congress’] partisan identification within the political sector, which challenge the notion of an impartial profile that the centre is trying to achieve.”

On another matter, Rabbi Scheim also said it was “mind-boggling” that CIJA decided to include Father de Souza – a Roman Catholic priest – but no rabbi.

When asked about this seeming oversight, Fogel responded that CIJA’s nominating committee debated including a rabbi on the board, but decided against it. “A rabbi was not excluded and several were considered. If we were mandated to include a rabbi, from what denomination would she/he have to be? Or, would we be obliged to take one from each stream of Judaism?” Fogel asked.

He added that CIJA is in the process of ensuring greater rabbinic engagement in its operations. It will revive the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus – formerly run under the auspices of the Canada-Israel Committee – and has “signalled” as much to various rabbis across the country, he said.

“That will serve as a dedicated and complementary platform to benefit from the unique contribution rabbis can make to our overall effort. I think one can anticipate that… a rabbi or rabbis will from time to time be nominated to the board,” he said.

When informed about this plan, Rabbi Scheim said that the caucus’ revival would “be welcome.”

Fogel said the caucus would be established shortly. “We want the rabbis’ buy-in and enthusiasm to have a dedicated role in the public policy debate.”

He said he has had preliminary discussions on the issue with Rabbi Michal Shekel, executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, to which Rabbi Scheim belongs, as well as with Rabbi Howard Morrison of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Montreal, among others.

“We’re looking for involvement of rabbis from all quarters,” Fogel said.